Look up, space is crowding with satellites
According to the Satellite Database of Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), there are over 2000 operational satellites currently orbiting the Earth. Musk hopes to place 12,000 satellites in space to provide high-speed internet connectivity.
The whole world cheered with Elon Musk on May 24 when his private rocket company launched its first batch of 60 satellites into space. But astronomers are not too thrilled because Musk plans on launching 11,040 more satellites.
It’s all about the internet
SpaceX is an American aerospace company and its biggest project is a satellite constellation called Starlink under construction. This constellation will hold 12,000 satellites that provide a low-cost, high-performing space-based internet communication system. If successful, this will be the largest man-made mega constellation.
Where would you place 12,000 satellites? Is there enough space? These satellites--each weighing just 227kg--will be present less than 600km above the surface in a low-Earth orbit. The short distance will minimise latency issues in internet connections.
SpaceX believes Starlink can generate between three and five percent of the worldwide, annual internet revenue of one trillion USD.
SpaceX Starlink objects train 24 May 2019 from Marco Langbroek on Vimeo.
According to the Satellite Database of Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), there are over 2000 operational satellites currently orbiting the Earth. Even Musk acknowledges that it is crowded out there.
There are already 4900 satellites in orbit, which people notice ~0% of the time. Starlink won’t be seen by anyone unless looking very carefully & will have ~0% impact on advancements in astronomy. We need to move telescopes to orbit anyway. Atmospheric attenuation is terrible. pic.twitter.com/OuWYfNmw0D— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 27, 2019
In 2009, Russian satellite Cosmos 2251 slammed into a telecommunication satellite at 26,000 miles per hour after spinning around Earth without any aim for nearly 15 years. Scientists estimate that 2,00,00 cm-sized bits of debris were formed as a result of this collision. Fortunately, each of these objects has not collided with any other satellites. Nevertheless, they are capable of causing damage in the future.
If this was a result of one failed satellite, what would be the repercussions of placing 12,000 satellites? Of course, they all may not fail. But the failure of even one satellite would be catastrophic.
Recently, NASA condemned India for its anti-satellite mission. NASA said that about 400 pieces of orbital debris were created. Addressing the commercialisation of low earth orbit, NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine said, "We are charged with enabling more activities in space than we've ever seen before for the purpose of benefiting the human condition.” He added that such events pose a big risk to the world.
SpaceX assures us that each satellite is capable of tracking any on-orbit debris to avoid any autonomous collision. During the end of a Starlink satellite’s life, SpaceX claims that 95 percent of the satellite’s components will disintegrate in Earth’s atmosphere during de-orbit.
Scientists aren’t convinced with an assurance. They fear that an event called the Kessler Syndrome would occur which is a domino-like effect, where one collision could create more. This theory was proposed by Astrophysicist Don Kessler, a former senior scientist for orbital debris research at NASA in 1978.
Image from SpaceX
Musk needs at least 12 launches carrying the same payloads to achieve his goal. SpaceX will launch at least 2,000 satellites next year and hopes to approach customers. SpaceX isn’t alone. Other mega constellation projects by OneWeb, Amazon and Kepler communications could increase the number of operational satellites in space.
Increased investment in projects does not mean better technology; companies must take it upon themselves to handle the debris because no one wishes to stand in the way of innovation.