SpaceX’s domination of low Earth orbit increases collision risk says expert

Shane McGlaun - Mar 28, 2021, 8:57am CDT
SpaceX’s domination of low Earth orbit increases collision risk says expert

SpaceX has been putting large numbers of satellites into low Earth orbit as part of its Starlink program to bring broadband Internet to every corner of the planet. SpaceX is rapidly deploying satellites with multiple launches aboard its own Falcon 9 rockets typically putting 60 of its satellites into orbit at a time. So far, SpaceX has put about 1300 satellites into orbit and aims to have around 42,000 in orbit by 2027.

While SpaceX is happily putting satellites into orbit, some experts fear that it’s crowding low Earth orbit too much and increasing the collision risk between satellites and debris. SpaceX equips its Starlink satellites with an ion drive specifically to avoid collisions. However, some fear that communications or operations of the satellite could fail in orbit, creating a hazard to other traffic in space.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, recently said that Starlink satellites “are completely dominating the space object population.” According to McDowell, there are about 300 other satellites in lower Earth orbit along with the ISS. The same orbit currently has 1300 Starlink satellites.

McDowell believes there’s a point where there are too many Starlink satellites constantly maneuvering, posing a hazard to traffic. The danger in a collision between satellites in orbit is creating a massive cloud of debris that could wreak havoc with other satellites in orbit and potentially damage the ISS.

While Starlink satellites aren’t large, they orbit at about 18,000 miles per hour. At such high velocities, debris doesn’t have to be particularly large to pose a significant hazard. In the event of a collision, the impact’s force reduces the satellites into thousands of shrapnel pieces that continued to orbit the Earth. McDowell believes that 2.5 percent of Starlink satellites may have failed in orbit, and once the entire constellation of 42,000 satellites is in orbit, that could mean as many as 1000 dead satellites circling the Earth.


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