I was looking over the stated goals of the broadband satellite companies and was struck by the sheer numbers of satellites that are being planned. The table further down in the blog shows plans for nearly 15,000 new satellites.
To put this into perspective, consider the number of satellites ever shot into space. The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (NOOSA) has been tracking space launches for decades. They report that there have been 8,378 objects put into space since the first Sputnik in 1957. As of the beginning of 2019, there were still 4,987 satellites still in orbit, although only 1,957 were still operational.
There was an average of 131 satellites launched per year between 1964 and 2012. Since 2012 we’ve seen 1,731 new satellites, with 2017 (453) and 2018 (382) seeing the most satellites put into space.
The logistics for getting this many new satellites into space is daunting. We’ve already seen OneWeb fall behind schedule. In addition to these satellites, there will continue to be numerous satellites launched for other purposes. I note that a few hundred of these are already in orbit. In the following table, “Current” means satellites that are planned for the next 3-4 years.
While space is a big place, there are some interesting challenges from having this many new objects in orbit. One of the biggest concerns is space debris. Low earth satellites travel at a speed of about 17,500 miles per hour to maintain orbit. When satellites collide at that speed, they create a large number of new pieces of space junk, also traveling at high speed. NASA estimates there are currently over 128 million pieces of orbiting debris smaller than 1 square centimeter and 900,000 objects between 1 and 10 square centimeters.
NASA scientist Donald Kessler described the dangers of space debris in 1978 in what’s now described as the Kessler syndrome. Every space collision creates more debris and eventually there will be a cloud of circling debris that will make it nearly impossible to maintain satellites in space. While scientists think that such a cloud is almost inevitable, some worry that a major collision between two large satellites, or malicious destruction by a bad actor government could accelerate the process and could quickly knock out all of the satellites in a given orbit. It would be ironic if the world solves the rural broadband problem using satellites, only to see those satellites disappear a cloud of debris.
Having so many satellites in orbit also concerns another group of scientists. The International Dark Sky Association has been fighting against light pollution that makes it hard to use earth-based telescopes. The group now also warns that a large number of new satellites will forever change our night sky. From any given spot on the Earth, the human eye can see roughly 1,300 visible stars. These satellites are all visible and once launched, mankind will never again see the natural sky that doesn’t contains numerous satellites at any given moment.
Satellite broadband is an exciting idea. The concept of bringing good broadband to remote people, to ships, and to airplanes is enticing. For example, the company Kepler listed above is today connecting to monitors for scientific purposes in places like lips of volcanos and on ocean buoys and is helping us to better understand our world. However, in launching huge numbers of satellites for broadband we’re possibly polluting space in a way that could make it unusable for future generations.