Elon Musk’s SpaceX at the weekend was given an official nod to build the company’s controversial Starlink global broadband network, using an enormous number of low-earth orbiting satellites. The system proposed by SpaceX will use no fewer than 4425 satellites – and Musk also has further plans for a fleet of 12,000-plus.
The latest proposal has caused alarm among many space industry observers who believe the low-earth atmospheric region is becoming overcrowded and already is home to thousands of debris items.
Low-earth collisions are potentially more dangerous than higher orbiting devices, because there is less chance of them burning up.
Australia has recently joined the fast increasing race to launch more low-earth satellites – some quite tiny, others as big as small buildings.
Adelaide based Myriota is developing what it says will be a low-earth orbit constellation of 50 nano-satellites; three Australian universities have already sent a number of small “cubesats” into orbit – and quite a number of others are planning space ventures, including SA-based Fleet, which is said to be working on plans for a “nanosatellite constellation” that would cover 90 percent of the earth.
In the USA, approval for the SpaceX plan has revived warnings of the likely increase of space debris in coming years – with collisions posing possibly deadly effects for the Earth – and its people.
Hugh Lewis, senior lecture in aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton, has warned that a 200-year computer simulation has shown the likely creation of a mega-constellation that could create a 50pc increase in the number of “catastrophic collisions”.
More than 500,000 pieces of debris, or “space junk,” are already being tracked as they orbit the Earth. They travel at speeds up to 17,500 mph, fast enough for a relatively small piece of orbital debris to hugely damage a satellite or a spacecraft.
A SpaceX spokesperson declined to comment on the exact number of satellites the company is planning to launch, but an FCC public notice, dated August 12 last year stated that SpaceX proposed to add a very-low-Earth orbit NGSO [non-geostationary orbit] constellation, consisting of 7518 satellites” to its previous application for 4425. If realised, this grand number would total 11,943 fuel-carrying satellites, each weighing nearly 400kg.
That’s more satellites than have ever been launched in all of space history.
SpaceX has been banking on the creation of a “global communications system” that Musk has compared to “rebuilding the Internet in space.” It would be faster than traditional Internet connections, he has said.
Musk has also said his company is committed to making sure Starlink doesn’t become a problem, but critics say there are currently no international laws governing space junk, meaning that there’s no legal repercussions for anyone who messes up. Good luck, Earth …