Just 10 years ago, there were only a thousand or so active satellites orbiting the Earth, but in a decade there will be tens or even hundreds of thousands.
Photos from open sources
Experts have been sounding the alarm for years that Earth’s orbit is getting too crowded. So, how many satellites can be safely placed in Earth orbit before there are too many? The answer to this question is not unambiguous. And that’s why.
Take Starlink from SpaceX as an example. According to information that Elon Musk’s company filed with the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last December, SpaceX’s autonomous collision avoidance system performed 26,037 orbit avoidance maneuvers with its Starlink satellites over a two-year period (from December 1, 2020 to November 30). 2022).
This means that each of the nearly 4,000 Starlink satellites that have been launched to date has completed an average of 12 evasive maneuvers in that time.
But the size of SpaceX’s current constellation is less than 10% of what the company plans to deploy. Over the next 10 years, the number of Starlink satellites in orbit could rise to 42,000. Add to that the up to 4,000 satellites that OneWeb wants to launch, another 3,200 Kuiper satellites from Amazon, and 13,000 satellites of the proposed Chinese Guowang system, and it becomes clear that things are much more worse.
According to the FCC document, SpaceX claims each of its satellites has enough propellant on board to perform 350 collision avoidance maneuvers over its expected five-year lifespan. But, according to the calculations of Hugh Lewis, professor of astronautics at the University of Southampton in the UK, this number can be reached not at all in five years, but much earlier.
He is echoed by his colleague astronomer and astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Jonathan McDowell:
“In five or ten years, we will have somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 satellites, and I am very skeptical that at the maximum number of 100,000 it will be safe to operate.”
However, working satellites are only part of the problem. The European Space Agency estimates that near-Earth space is cluttered with about 36,500 pieces of space debris larger than 10 centimeters, about a million objects between 1 and 10 centimeters in size, and 130 million pieces smaller than one centimeter.
Therefore, astrophysicists are calling on space agencies to develop technology to remove the most dangerous pieces of orbital debris, determine the exact number of satellites that can be in different orbits, and establish rules for deorbiting these spacecraft.