Satellite broadband made the news again recently when the Chinese government said it had to adjust the orbits of the Chinese space station to avoid collisions with Starlink satellites. China claims it had to make adjustments in July and October of last year.
The Chinese are not the only ones making this claim. In 2020, the CEO of Rocket Lab said that it is becoming increasingly difficult to plot a clear trajectory when launching a rocket. The head of the European space agency recently accused Starlink of “making the rules” for everybody else in the way the company is launching satellites. The recent reaction by Elon Musk to these criticisms is that space is huge and can accommodate tens of billions of satellites.
What seems to be in play here is that there are no international regulations in place to define parameters for space launches. The last international treaty on space is over fifty years old and never envisioned the huge number of satellites we’re already starting to see. Starlink alone already has over 1,700 satellites and plans to launch new satellites twice per month throughout 2022. One earlier Starlink business plan called for over 30,000 satellites.
There have already been a few notable collisions between satellites. The most recent was when the Yunhai-1 Chinese satellite was apparently destroyed in March 2021 from pieces of debris from a Russian Satellite. There is a huge amount of space debris. There are over a million pieces of debris between 1 and 10 centimeters (4 inches) in size. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network was actively tracking 15,000 objects larger than 4 centimeters as of November 2021.
Debris matters because orbiting objects are moving fast – at 150 miles above the earth, a satellite needs to be going 17,500 miles per hour to maintain orbit. A collision with even a small object can be devastating.
Scientists have been warning about space debris for a long time. In 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler warned that collisions in space could result in a cloud of debris that would create an effective barrier to launching rockets or sending people into space.
This is no longer a theoretical problem since much of what we do on earth is now reliant on satellites. Most of our cable TV signals are launched from space. GPS relies on a series of satellites. Ships and airplanes navigate with support from satellites. Satellites are used to track weather patterns. There are now satellites tracking and monitoring everything from the movement of foreign armies to the water temperature of the oceans. There will soon be millions of broadband customers using low-orbit satellites.
It’s hard for any layman to understand the real risks. Some of the controversy likely stems from international wrangling between nations. But there are also a lot of notable scientists that are worried that we might make space unusable.
It will be ironic if the world solves rural broadband with satellites only to find one day that there is too much debris to launch more satellites. It seems like a remote possibility, but some scientists say it’s possible. It makes sense for the international community to come together and work out rules that everybody can agree to.