The space industry has seen a dramatic increase in the number of satellites launched into low Earth orbit in recent years. Much, but not all, of this growth has been driven by the rapid expansion of SpaceX’s Starlink megaconstellation, which is now populated by more than 4,000 satellites.
In our space panel for Ars Frontiers, I had the pleasure of discussing the implications of this growth in space satellites and services with a distinguished group of experts. Many issues have arisen, good and bad, from the encumbrance of low Earth orbit to the development of powerful tools used in conflicts, such as synthetic aperture radar and communications in Ukraine. You can watch the whole discussion here.
It’s important to realize how much the environment in low Earth orbit has changed over the past five years. This is the area of space from about 100 km in the atmosphere up to about 2,000 km. But most satellites are clustered within a few hundred kilometers of the Earth’s surface.
Charity Weeden is the vice president of global space policy and government relations for Astroscale, a company working to develop technologies to remove debris from low Earth orbit.
“Everything changed in orbit,” Weeden explained. “The number of countries in orbit is probably over 100 today. So this has really helped the entire global community embrace and use space for the benefit of all of society. That’s a good thing. Space is embedded in our lives in our educational products, in transportation, in communications, as you said, safety, security, economy.”
That means we’re all involved in this, he said, and as a result, we have to work together. “For the past six decades, we’ve used space as our own personal operational junkyard. You know, you launch things, things break, the pieces will stay in orbit, the upper stage rocket bodies will stay in orbit, and they can also slowly glide into the orbit.” atmosphere and burn on re-entry. It’s okay. But it’s the pace of things over the last 5-10 years that has really shown us that the rules we set about three decades ago don’t apply [and] today they are not fit for purpose”.
Just four years ago there were about 2,500 satellites in low Earth orbit, and today there are about 7,000. That number will continue to grow as more megaconstellations, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper and similar constellations built by China and Europe, come online later this decade. SpaceX also plans to launch ever larger Starlink satellites with its Starship rocket.
There are certainly significant management challenges, but NASA’s Bhavya Lal, the agency’s associate administrator for technology, policy and strategy, struck a hopeful tone.
“I’m not one of those people who likes to do ‘the sky is falling,'” she said. “I think this is a manageable problem. We just have to take it seriously. I know you can’t predict the future from the past, but there was a case in the last 20 years where an active satellite hit a trackable piece of debris. We have to figure out how to work together to make things better.”
One of the biggest problems facing policy makers is sharing satellite tracking data and space debris. This is especially problematic with private companies like SpaceX and nation-states like China, which don’t communicate regularly with each other. Privateer Space is trying to help with this problem by building a data infrastructure to monitor and clean up space debris.
“As nation-states, we need to share our tracking data and we need to create standards that are best for humanity so we can safely operate in space around known debris,” said Alex Fielding, co-founder and administrator delegate of Privateer Space. “We also need to start to better understand the known unknowns, which is debris smaller than that 10cm on a regular basis, and ultimately have persistent tracking and have rules and standards about what it takes to put an object into space and how we responsibly manage those objects once they’re in orbit.”
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