As countries across the globe strive towards wireless internet connections, experts believe we may be solving an Earth-bound problem by creating a new one up in space.
European Space Agency
“Mega constellations” of satellites are usually the course taken to set up country-wide wireless internet, as well as for other projects like India’s own recent Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System mapping system. However, this exponential increase in satellites being put into space could result in much more space junk floating around the planet, creating a hazardous environment in our orbit.
Google, Facebook, SpaceX, Boeing and Samsung are all vying to launch global broadband networks by deploying thousands of tiny satellites into low-Earth orbit.
Simulations from a 200-year study by the University of Southampton show that this rise in orbital traffic can increase the likelihood of satellite collisions by at least 50 percent. This in turn could generate more space junk in orbit, further increasing the likelihood of future accidents.
“The constellations that are due to be deployed from next year contain an unprecedented number of satellites, and a constellation launched without much thought will see a significant impact on the space environment because of the increased rate of collisions that might occur,” said Dr Hugh Lewis, a senior lecturer in aerospace engineering and author behind the study.
His study shows that, with about 750,000 objects orbiting Earth at average speeds of 40,000 km/h, any impact would deliver the energy equivalent of an exploding hand grenade. This would not only damage the satellite impacted, potentially affecting the services it provides, but also cause pieces to drift into their own un-monitored orbit, causing more havoc.
The European Space Agency (ESA), which funded Lewis’s research, is therefore attempting to have satellites planned for these mega-constellations designed to be able to shift to lower altitude orbits once their lifetime is over, so that they can burn up in the atmosphere. This would also require the satellites to be able to discharge its batteries, and empty its fuel and pressure tanks to prevent possible explosions.
Dr Holger Krag, head of the ESA’s space debris office, believes these very same companies planning to launch satellites don’t have enough experience dealing with the consequences of overcrowding in Earth’s orbit. He says he’s worried by their ambitions to manufacture satellites at cheaper costs, believing they may not stick to guidelines enabling them to be safely disposed of after their missions are through.
“They are companies so they have competitors, so they have pressure,” Krag told the Guardian. “Under these conditions they would have to manufacture satellites that are reliable enough after five years of operations to reliably conduct this disposal manoeuvre. Right now, all the taxpayer-funded space flight we are doing today is only able to achieve 60% of success rate for that manoeuvre. How can they be better under commercial pressure and with cheaper satellites? That’s the worry we have.”