SpaceX is dominating orbit with its Starlink satellites, making the risk of space traffic collision a serious hazard, industry experts say

Elon Musk, chairman and chief executive officer of Tesla Motors Inc., speaks in front of a Tesla Model S electric car on day two of the 2010 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010. The 2010 Detroit auto show runs through January 24 and features 60 new vehicle premieres. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Elon Musk et al. around each other: SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
 SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

  • SpaceX Starlink satellites have taken over the lower Earth orbit, experts told Insider.
  • There are apparently 1,300 Starlink satellites in lower orbit and 300 from other entities.
  • “We’re not at the end of the world yet but it’s a serious situation,” another space researcher said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

SpaceX is rapidly deploying its Starlink internet network across the globe with rocket launches happening on a monthly basis.

By rapidly adding to the number of satellites in orbit, space industry experts believe Elon Musk’s space company is heightening the risk of collisions between space objects, generating an abundance of debris.

SpaceX’s Starlink has blasted around 1,300 satellites into orbit and plans for a megaconstellation of up to 42,000 spacecraft in mid-2027.

In October, Starlink launched its Better Than Nothing Beta test across the northern US for $99 a month, plus $499 for the kit. It now operates in more than six countries and has more than 10,000 users worldwide.

Starlink has previously said its satellites can avoid collisions using an ion drive, which allows it to dodge other objects in orbit. But if the satellites’ communications or operations fail in orbit, they become hazards to space traffic.

In the lower part of the Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Starlink satellites “are completely dominating the space object population,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Insider on Tuesday.

He said there are around 300 other satellites in the lower LEO, including the International Space Station, in comparison to the 1,300 Starlink satellites.

“There’s a point at which they are so many of them manoeuvering all the time that it’s a hazard to traffic” in space, McDowell said, adding that the hazard can result in a massive collision, creating junk.

Each satellite travels at 18,000 miles per hour and all of them are going in different directions, according to McDowell. If they smash into each other, it sends hypersonic shockwaves through the satellites and reduces them into thousands of pieces of shrapnel which then make a shell around the Earth, he said.

This becomes a threat to other space users and an obstruction for astronomers observing the skies.

McDowell calculated in November that 2.5% of Starlink satellites may have failed in orbit. This may not sound bad in the grand scheme of things. But if this issue persists, SpaceX’s entire planned constellation may produce more than 1,000 dead satellites.

10,000 satellites are due to launch in the next decade

John Auburn, managing director of Astroscale UK, an orbital debris removal firm headquartered in Tokyo, said in a press briefing on March 17 that more than 10,000 satellites are scheduled to be launched in the next 10 years.

McDowell said satellite companies may have some “nasty surprises” if they get this amount of satellites in orbit. He said firms should stop launching satellites when the amount hits 1,000 and monitor them for a while to see if any problems crop up, such as design flaws.

There could be a “complete catastrophe” on the horizon, McDowell said.

But its not all bad news. Daniel Oltrogge, director at the Center for Space Standards and Innovation, told Insider it’s beneficial that Starlink satellites are in the lower LEO because they can be removed more quickly if they fail.

Oltrogge said the space junk issue isn’t a blame game. Any user of space, including governments, and commercial and civil companies, have all contributed to this picture of space debris today, he said.

There are many problems to tackle, said Oltrogge, including satellite operators complying with guidelines that help minimize collision risks, improving space situational awareness and spacecraft design, and exchanging more data between satellite companies.

But if we don’t address the space junk crisis at a global level, rather than at an operator one, “we risk missing how the environment is degrading,” according to Oltrogge.

“We’re not at the end of the world yet,” Oltrogge said. “But it’s a serious situation that warrants scrutiny.”

Why SpaceX is one of the top satellite launchers

Compared to other private commercial satellite companies, SpaceX comes top trumps. Since May 2019, there’s been a staggering 23 Starlink launches via SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

McDowell believes the company’s acceleration may be down to its CEO. “Elon doesn’t have to answer to many people, he can make decisions effectively, he doesn’t have to diver around and get permission,” he said.

On top of this, he has his own rockets to launch the satellites into orbit, McDowell said. This saves him time and money as he doesn’t have to negotiate another launch contract. The fact that the rockets are reusable – the last Falcon 9 booster on Wednesday’s mission was used six times – also makes it cheap for SpaceX to launch satellites.

“That’s an advantage the other companies don’t have,” said McDowell.

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