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By Jim Rhodes
It’s been a busy news week with a devastating hurricane in the Bahamas, political meltdown in Britain, suicide bombs at weddings in Afghanistan and the usual bloviating Twitter Wars in Washington, so you may have missed this story.
On Monday, Sept. 2, two satellites orbiting the Earth came uncomfortably close to colliding. The European Space Agency (ESA) discovered that one of its satellites was on a possible collision course with a SpaceX Starlink satellite. Both are in low-Earth orbits (LEO) a few hundred miles above the Earth’s surface. ESA officials tried to contact SpaceX to discuss the threat, but apparently there was a bug in the SpaceX on-call paging system. So, at the last-minute ESA initiated a maneuver to move its satellite to a safe distance.
In a statement, an ESA representative said the current email-based communication scheme for deconfliction is a dangerously inefficient way to manage space traffic and prevent collisions.
That’s the understatement of the week.
One might think that someone at ESA could have picked up the phone and called Mr. Musk’s office when the email didn’t go through.
Your correspondent has some small experience in this sphere. I was handling PR for Iridium in 2009 when one of its communication satellites collided with a dormant Russian Kosmos military satellite that was no longer under active control. The high-speed collision destroyed both satellites, producing more than 2,000 fragments. Some fell to Earth and burned up in the atmosphere, but about 1,500 are still in orbit today, hurtling through space totally out of control at speeds of more than 20,000 miles per hour.
So how serious a problem is space debris?
Glad you asked.
According to a January 2019 report from the ESA Space Debris Office, there are about 22,300 debris objects that are regularly tracked and maintained in the Space Surveillance Networks database.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s estimated there are currently more than 34,000 objects over 10 cm (about 4 in.), 900,000 objects from 1 to 10 cm and an astounding 128 million objects from 1 mm to 1 cm circling the planet. Even a bolt, nut, screwdriver or bullet-sized hunk of metal travelling through space at thousands of miles per hour can do serious damage if it hits a functional satellite or (even worse!) the manned International Space Station (ISS).
Space debris is mostly caused by what are euphemistically called “fragmentation events” in the industry. Only a few of these events are collisions between satellites. The majority are explosions of defunct satellites and upper stages of launch rockets, often caused by residual fuel in tanks or fuel lines. Another major cause is anti-satellite missile tests, such as the one conducted in 2007 by China that destroyed an orbiting satellite, reportedly increasing the trackable space object population by 25 percent. A similar anti-satellite missile test was conducted by India earlier this year, creating a “cloud” of over 400 items. Some of the pieces will eventually de-orbit and burn up, but many will stay in orbit for years.
The problem will soon become more acute. Near-Earth space is about to become a very crowded place, as companies race to create space-based broadband communication networks for ubiquitous global internet connectivity.
Right now, the ESA says there are about 5,000 satellites in orbit, of which about 1,950 are still functioning.
SpaceX ambitiously hopes to have an initial constellation of 2,000 satellites by the end of 2019, with an ultimate goal of over 12,000 satellites in orbit. Mr. Musk is not a man to think small thoughts.
(Let’s hope they get that little glitch with their emails worked out by then.)
And SpaceX is not alone. OneWeb is looking at 650 satellites, and Amazon (yes, Amazon!) wants to launch 3,236 satellites over the next few years under its Project Kepler initiative. Facebook is widely reported to be working on its own satellite internet network as well.
Unlike the current giant high-powered telecommunication and broadcast satellites – about the size of a school bus – in very high geostationary orbits, the new LEO satellites are tiny – some of them no bigger than a shoebox. Because of their proximity to Earth, they have very low-power requirements and don’t need massive antennas to communicate over the short distances. The “smart” satellites will have the ability to hand off calls to each other as they move very fast across the sky.
Returning to the original premise, the flustered ESA official is right. There could soon be 20,000 operational satellites along with a debris field of millions of items all flying at super-high speeds around the Earth. The current tracking and email-based collision-avoidance protocols are woefully inadequate.
Human lives are at risk. In 2012, a fragment of the Kosmos satellite passed within 130 yards of the ISS, causing the crew members to move into the docked Soyuz spacecraft until the danger passed.
To be sure, space experts are fully aware of the danger, and a number of interesting proposals for removing space junk have been mooted, such as junk gathering satellites with giant nets, tethers or pincer-type arms to retrieve fragments, which could presumably be dumped into the Earth’s atmosphere for burning up at re-entry.
Still, the likelihood is that space junk will continue to proliferate faster than it can be removed. And who is going to pay for these high-tech solutions?