Earth Junk and Traffic in Space: Satellite Constellations Piling Up with Recent Launches

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(A time lapse photograph that depicts a Starlink satellite cluster (bright streaks) passing through a telescope’s field of view at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile in November 2019. Credit: CTIO, NOIRLab, NSF, AURA and DECam DELVE Survey)

If you have some excess clutter in your home, the usual choice is to hire a storage container unit and pack all those items away, out of sight and contained. The combined approach of NASA, SpaceX, and all major players in the newly developing internet satellite industry is less responsible.

As more and more satellite constellations are being launched into space environmental scientists and activists warn against the increasingly unsustainable buildup of space debris. It would be the equivalent of dumping all those excess items from your home closet into the nearby stream. Only this is a stream that circles around and around the earth, bringing all this technological buildup with it to create an endlessly rotating rubbish heap.

With the latest launch of Low Earth Orbit internet satellites launched by Russia just a few days ago, on May 28th, let’s look at some of the risks and problems presented by the burgeoning satellite constellation industry- and some of the major players involved.

Recent Developments

With an increasing need for greater access to the internet across the world, major tech companies have embarked on projects like Amazon’s Project Kuiper and, perhaps most notably, Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink Project. These companies have been working to develop space-based solutions to providing increased internet connectivity across the globe. Corporations in China and Russia have joined in this contemporary space race. Since China opened the space sector to private investors, Chinese companies like Spacety have invested heavily in what promises to be a significant profit sector in the near future.

The latest news in satellite constellations is Russia’s recent space launch, which will add 36 more spacecraft to the OneWeb satellite constellation. The company first launched an internet satellite space mission in February 2020, and they intend to complete the mission with 650 spacecraft orbiting the globe, providing internet to earthbound customers on land, in the air, and at sea. The Russian launch was completed in collaboration with Starsem, Roscosmos, and Arianespace. Like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, critics decry these launches for failing to build in environmentally sustainable measures. The OneWeb constellation now includes 218 spacecraft in orbit.

Just two days earlier, on May 26th, in California, SpaceX launched another 60 Starlink satellites into space, to complete what will be the first of five orbital “shells” that will make up the Starlink satellite constellation. Before this, SpaceX’s 16th Falcon 9 launch of 2021, there were 1677 Starlink satellites orbiting the earth. Now, with the successful launch of this latest mission, the first orbital “shell” is complete, with 1584 satellites orbiting the globe, beaming internet connection back down to earth. SpaceX has pegged March 2027 as the end date for Phase One of their plan, which will include a total of five orbital shells, with up to 4,408 satellites in orbit.

A Future That Blinds

After the 2027 completion of Phase One of SpaceX’s Starlink Project, they will begin Phase Two, launching an additional 7,518 active satellites into orbit. By the end of Phase Two, there will be nearly 12,000 satellites orbiting the earth in the Starlink constellation alone.

That means that the number of Starlink satellites, combined with those launched by Amazon’s Project Kuiper, OneWeb, and the Chinese GW satellite constellations, will likely add up to one hundred thousand satellites in orbit above the earth in just over a decade.

The huge leap in the number of satellites orbiting earth over the coming decades has raised huge concerns among astronomists, astrophysicists, and cultural anthropologists. While satellite constellations can provide hugely increased access to the internet, a much-needed global resource, and that access can extend even into remote areas, there are detrimental effects that must be considered.

Blocking Visibility, Building Up Junk

With tens of thousands of bright, blinking satellites orbiting the globe, scientists may no longer be able to observe the stars. The brightness of the satellite constellations will likely block the clear view of large wide-field telescopes used by observatories. These observatories record changes among star patterns and keep watch for asteroids that could potentially collide with the earth. For indigenous tribes who still chart the seasons, track ritual cycles, and even navigate by the stars, the sudden influx of huge amounts of human-generated blinking lights in the sky will cause huge disruptions.

And beyond just the visible disruptions, the mass release of satellites into the sky with few provisions or precautions for traffic and buildup will almost certainly result in crashes that create floating space debris. These collisions have been named the “Kessler effect” and can result in the kind of domino effect you may sometimes witness driving on the freeway late at night. One satellite crashes into another and that blip in the orbital rotation creates a pile-up effect- and thus more space junk floating in orbit.

Initial Precautions

SpaceX has experimented with some precautions against these potential problems. They have worked on “Darksat” satellites, which are painted black to lessen the brightness in the sky. This approach caused problems with Darksat’s heat regulation system, so satellites are now launched with a sunshade that lowers the satellites’ brightness- but not enough to entirely cull astrophysicists’ concerns.

SpaceX has also equipped their satellites with an automatic collision avoidance system, to prevent traffic pileups and crashes, but experts have raised doubts about how effective these systems truly are at preventing collisions, particularly with the number of active satellites in orbit set to jump by the tens of thousands in just a handful of years. And similar concerns have been raised about the preventive measures other satellite constellation launch companies have installed.

Keeping Watch

Astrophysicists, astronomers, and cultural analysts are still trying to get a clear sense of just how much light pollution, space debris, and satellite traffic buildup will be caused by the huge numbers of satellites being launched into space this decade. Soon there may be a thick cloud of pollution orbiting the earth like another atmosphere; an atmosphere that could be prevented by precautions taken now. The global benefits of increased access to the internet must be weighed carefully against the lasting damage that premature mass satellite launches can cause.

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