As Elon Musk’s space company, SpaceX is rapidly adding to the number of satellites in orbit, space industry experts warned that the company is heightening the risk of collisions between space objects, generating an abundance of debris. According to Business Insider, SpaceX’s Starlink has already blasted around 1,300 satellites into orbit and it now also plans for a mega constellation of up to 42,000 spacecraft in mid-2027. Even though SpaceX has said that its satellites can avoid collisions, experts, however, feel that if the satellites’ communications or operations fail in orbit, they become hazards to space traffic.
While speaking to the media outlet, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said that in the lower part of the Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Starlink satellites are completely dominating the space object population. McDowell noted that there are around 300 other satellites in the lower LEO, including the ISS, in comparison to the 1,300 Starlink satellites. And he further said that there is a point at which they are so many of them manoeuvring all the time that it’s a “hazard” to traffic in space.
McDowell added that the hazard can result in a massive collision, creating junk. He said that each satellite travels at 18,000 miles per hour and all of them are going in different directions. If they smash into each other, it will send hypersonic shockwaves through the satellites and reduce them into thousands of pieces of shrapnel which then will make a shell around the globe, McDowell said.
There could be a ‘complete catastrophe’
The astronomer even went on to calculate that back in November 2.5 per cent of Starlink satellites may have failed in orbit. He said that this may not sound bad in the ground scheme of things. But if this issue persists, Musk’s space company’s entire planned constellation may produce more than 1,000 dead satellites.
It is worth mentioning that John Auburn, who is the managing director of Astroscale UK, said that more than 10,000 satellites are scheduled to be launched in the next year. McDowell said that satellite companies may have some “nasty surprise” if they get this amount of satellites in orbit. He also added that firms should stop launching satellites when the amount hits 1,000 and monitor them for a while to see if any problems crop up, such as design flaw. There could be a “complete catastrophe” on the horizon, McDowell said.
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