Space could end up being a very crowded place as companies like Amazon and SpaceX increase their reach into low-Earth orbit with numerous satellites. This, in turn, raises progressive concerns regarding space junk as a threat to astronomers and satellite managers, a researcher has argued.
More than 2,200 satellites have been deployed into space since Russia‘s Sputnik 1 became the first artificial satellite to rotate around our planet. However, tens of thousands of satellites will soon invade the night skies, as planned by SpaceX’s Starlink constellation project.
Crowding in Low-Earth has Negative Impacts
The Starlink constellation, which intends to provide high-speed Internet to every part of the world from space, will maintain a fleet of approximately 12,000 satellites. There are already 420 Starlink probes in orbit, and the company plans to launch batches of 60 vehicles every month until the constellation is functional.
However, SpaceX is not the only company securing prime real estate in low-Earth orbit because other corporations such as Amazon and Telesat in Canada have plans to launch satellite constellations of their own. As per Martin McCoustra, head in Chemical Physics at Heriot-Watt University, U.K., the concern is twofold.
First of all, astronomers are worried about the effects these satellite constellations will have on night-time data collection of the Universe.
In an article for The Conversation, Professor McCoustra wrote: “Crowding in low-Earth orbit has inevitable consequences for ground-based astronomers. Bright surfaces on satellites can reflect rays from the Sun – giving rise to a burst of sunlight directed towards the surface of the Earth. Such intense bursts of light are much stronger than the weak light sources typically being observed by astronomers and will impede observations of distant objects in space.”
SpaceX has already taken into consideration the concern and has promised to take steps to alleviate the issue by painting the satellites black, tweaking their angle in orbit, and adding visors to lower the sunlight they reflect.
Back in March of this year, SpaceX boss Elon Musk was asked about the possibility of Starlink meddling with observations.
He said: “I am confident that we will not cause any in astronomical discoveries. Zero. That’s my prediction. We’ll take corrective action if it’s above zero.”
Space Debris is Extremely Dangerous
Still, there is a second threat raised by a crowded orbit: the danger of space debris and orbital junk. For satellites and spacecraft to keep a steady orbit of the planet, they have to reach speeds of more than 17,000mph.
It is also true that any part of a satellite that has broken off is now racing around the Earth at incredibly high speeds, without control.
Professor McCoustra said: “Collisions between such objects can, therefore, occur at combined speeds of potentially up to 34,000mph at 124 miles – if it is head-on. The effects of such impacts can be serious for astronauts and space stations – as the dramatic opening scenes of the 2013 movie Gravity depict.”
In August 2018, for example, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) sealed a hole in the orbital lab, probably caused by a micrometeorite or space junk floating around in Earth orbit. The hole, about 0.07 inches (2 millimeters) wide, made the space station lose pressure.
“There is little doubt that, with the increasing use and commercialization of space, we boost the risk of catastrophic events associated with orbital debris. Agencies, both state and commercial, must recognize this and support efforts to reduce the likelihood of such events by taking steps to remove existing debris and reduce the potential for further debris by removing redundant satellites and other space vehicles,” Professor McCoustra said.