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By Jim Rhodes
As you may know, I have worked with dozens of clients in the satellite and space industry in my PR business over the last 40+ years, so I closely follow developments in the field.
Hence, a flurry of inter-related news headlines in recent weeks caught my eye.
One was the announcement in November that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission had received license applications for 38,000 new communication satellites using newly available V-band frequencies in the race to create a global umbrella of ubiquitous high-speed broadband coverage. This doesn’t include Elon Musk’s already approved first-generation Starlink constellation of 12,000 satellites, of which 1,800 are already in orbit, or Starlink’s request for authorization to launch 30,000 additional satellites.
Second was a report that a Chinese military satellite called Yunhai 1-02 had collided with a fragment from a Russian Zenit-2 rocket that had originally been launched in 1996 and reportedly broke up in March of this year.
Third, Russia last month conducted an anti-satellite missile test that destroyed one of its own defunct surveillance satellites. The explosion generated a large debris field of thousands of shards that will endanger other operational satellites as well as the manned International Space Station (ISS).
Fourth, on November 10 the ISS had to make an unplanned emergency maneuver to dodge space debris items just hours before the launch of a rocket transporting five new astronauts to the platform.
This confluence of inter-related news stories stirred a remote memory in my brain about something I had read years ago describing a phenomenon called the Kessler Syndrome. It was named for a NASA scientist named Donald Kessler who published a paper in 1978 called Collision Frequency of Artificial Satellites: The Creation of a Debris Belt. He predicted that as the number of satellites in space multiplied collisions would be become more frequent, resulting in exponential growth in space debris, which would create a self-fulfilling cascading effect.
Kessler wrote that collisions in space would create over time a debris field of orbiting fragments. Satellite collisions would produce a growing cloud of orbiting fragments that would run into each other, thereby increasing the density of the debris field and the likelihood of more collisions.
And so on.
A U.S. astrophysicist named Jonathan McDowell in a recent interview explained the Kessler Syndrome thus: “Collisions are proportional to the square of the number of things in orbit. That is to say, if you have 10 times as many collisions, you’re going to get 100 times as many collisions. So as the traffic density goes up collisions are going to go from being a minor constituent of the space junk problem to being the major constituent. That’s just math.”
The pace of new satellite launches is growing rapidly, partly because the cost of building and launching satellites into orbit is plummeting. The majority of satellites going into space today are very small spacecraft not much larger than a shoebox for Earth observation and surveillance applications, mostly occupying low-Earth orbits (LEO). Dozens of these can be launched on a single rocket.
According to the European Space Agency (ESA), a total of 12,170 satellites have been launched into orbit around the Earth since the first Russian Sputnik in 1957, and 7,360 are still circling the Earth, of which only 4,700 are actually operational (that means about 3,000 defunct satellites are spinning around the Earth out of control).
The number of satellites surrounding the Earth will grow at an astounding pace as the new mega-constellations from companies like SpaceX (30,000), Amazon (7,774), Astra (13,620), Boeing (5,789) and OneWeb (6,371) are launched into space. And Greg Wyler, founder and former CEO of OneWeb, is partnering with the Rwanda Space Agency to file for licenses to operate a constellation of 327,000 communication satellites.
Even if only a fraction of these constellations are actually placed into service, it’s likely we’ll see tens of thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth in a few years.
And more satellites will mean a higher frequency of collisions, producing more space junk.
The ESA estimates there are currently over 34,000 space debris pieces larger than 4 inches in diameter currently circling the Earth, along with about 900,000 objects larger than 0.4 inches and an estimated 124 million fragments between 0.04 to 0.4 inches (too many and too small to map). Each of these pieces are hurtling at speeds up to 17,500 miles per hour. That’s about ten times the velocity of a bullet fired from a pistol on Earth.
Happily, the news is not altogether grim.
On November 9, Space News reported on Japan’s launch of a Debris Removal Unprecedented Micro Satellite (DRUMS), which will test techniques for capturing and removing items from space. This follows on the heels of a report on October 27 that China had successfully launched a satellite to test space debris mitigation technology. Unfortunately, China has not shared any details of the spacecraft or its mission.
On the other hand …
As I was writing this essay, I opened my latest issue of The Economist and discovered an article (“Goodbye darkness, my old friend”) on how the proliferation of low-orbit satellites will adversely impact the science of astronomy. When SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites into orbit on May 24, astronomers on Earth were dismayed to see the bright dots moving across the sky, adversely affecting their view of stars in that segment of space. Astronomy professionals and amateurs are aghast and are demanding measures to mitigate the impact on their ability to view objects in space. Tens of thousands of satellites in LEO will effectively mask much of the sky, they say, especially at dusk and dawn when the sun’s reflections are brightest.
Fast forward …
An old man and his grandson sit on the back porch gazing up at the glowing orange night sky crisscrossed with fast-moving bright specks of light. The lad says, “Grandfather, show me again where the North Star used to be.”
Image Credit: Via Satellite