“…Musk anticipates a total Starlink build-out upwards of 30,000 orbiting moneymakers.”
In the spring of 2019, scientists at Elon Musk’s globe-girding Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) installed his new Starlink 44 communications satellite in an orbit 200 miles above the Earth.
Four months later, monitors at the U.S. Department of Defense notified the European Space Agency (ESA) that Starlink 44 stood a 1 in 1,000 chance of colliding with its own Aeolus Earth observation satellite. If those sound like pretty long odds, they’re a whole lot shorter than the 1 in 10,000 risk threshold generally considered acceptable for high-flying hardware. Given that Aeolus had been occupying that orbital niche for the better part of a year, ESA asked SpaceX to adjust the new kid on the block’s trajectory away from harm’s way. SpaceX declined the request—by email—forcing ESA to take evasive action of its own.
Maybe Musk considered a thousand-to-one odds of turning two expensive marvels of engineering into titanium confetti long enough. Maybe he figured his satellite’s as-yet unproven onboard autonomous collision avoidance system would see it safely through. Or maybe SpaceX simply didn’t want to use up any of Starlink 44’s extremely limited maneuvering propellant so early in the game. Whatever the reason, ELA wasn’t happy about Musk’s discourtesy, and it’s been joined in its objections by an indignant gallery of second-string space-com competitors from Viasat and OneWeb Global to Hughes Network Systems and Boeing. But, complain as they might, they may as well get used to it. Elon doesn’t pretend to be a team player, and the sky over their heads is getting Musk-ier by the day.
Unsporting or no, SpaceX didn’t do anything wrong, because there are no rules in space. No firm code of conduct, no order of priority, no system of redress. While the international Outer Space Treaty of 1967 makes a gentleman’s attempt to encourage fair play on our common ground above, it’s backed by no legal authority, and its handshake provisions were crafted long before anybody envisioned today’s teeming vault. At present, satellites fall under the jurisdiction of the nation whose flag they fly. Long overseen by the Department of Defense, since 2018 the semi-management of American-based space traffic has been the province of the United States Commerce Department’s small but swiftly sprouting Office of Space Commerce, which has its hands full just trying to keep track of what’s where up there. And that job is getting harder all the time.
There are about 4,000 functioning satellites orbiting the Earth. There are about 6,000 non-functioning ones, many of them long ago lost to terrestrial notice, untracked stealth bombs that could theoretically T-bone the International Space Station with little or no warning. Into that cosmic clutter we’re on track to inject nearly 50,000 new satellites between now and 2030, which is roughly five times the total number of satellites launched since Sputnik (da, it’s still up there) sparked the Space Race in 1957.
The rich placers at the end of this high-tech gold rush are internet fees. About 40 percent of the world’s population lacks internet access, and more than 15 million rural Americans can’t get even basic broadband services. While he may care deeply about John and Jane Heartland’s ability to connect with friends on Facebook, it’s not impossible that Musk’s real goal is to dominate what’s estimated to be an untapped trillion dollar market. He expects to fill those lucrative voids with Starlink, a mega-constellation of communication satellites. SpaceX has launched more than 1,600 satellites to date, has government approval to launch almost 11, 000 more, and Musk anticipates a total Starlink build-out upwards of 30,000 orbiting moneymakers. Current Starlink customers pay $99 a month for the service, and some industry analysts estimate the Company’s profit potential could top 30 billion broadband bucks a year.
Determined to get his own piece of that sweet, sweet action, Amazon’s always energetic Jeff Bezos is preparing to deploy Project Kuiper, a mega-constellation 3,236 satellites strong. London-based WebOne has another 650 satellites in the pipeline, and Canadian satellite manufacturer Telesat hopes to launch 300 by next year. Complicating the already complicated, nearly all of the planned 50,000 satellites will be packed into low Earth orbit to avoid the irritating signal latency experienced by satellites in far higher—and far safer—geosynchronous orbit. Further muddying the waters, the heavens are lousy with litter, everything from burned out rocket boosters to scrap plastics to metal debris from damaged or destroyed satellites, and even iron-hard nuggets of frozen human waste, all of it circling the planet at anywhere from 7,000 to 36,000 miles per hour. Zooming along at, say, 17,000 mph, a paint chip smaller than a dime could easily disable a satellite. A scrap of aluminum the size of a Blu Ray would hit like an artillery shell. A collision between two satellites would create a band of hyper-speed shrapnel that might render an orbital path unsuitable for human use indefinitely. At worst, such a crash could touch off Kessler Syndrome, a theoretical domino effect of debris and destruction decimating large swaths of Earth’s orbital envelope and crippling essential communications networks.
What’s more, the 50,000 vehicles now merging onto Earth’s already busy celestial superhighway are just the first wave. Modern satellites have a useful life span of 10 to 15 years, and taking defunct units out of circulation generally entails lowering their orbits and waiting for natural orbital decay to burn them up in the atmosphere, a plodding process that can take up to 150 years. It’s not hard to imagine five, or even six generations of Starlink satellites aloft at the same time, one generation functional and the rest of them silent hulks, bumper to bumper, slowly spiraling out of commission.
Researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration predict that the impending explosion of space traffic will increase the need for complex collision avoidance maneuvers from a relatively manageable three per day to as many as eight per hour. NASA also cautions that imposing order on that much orbital chaos is quite likely beyond our frail human capacities. To keep our extraterrestrial turnpikes running smoothly, we’re going to need tomorrow’s artificial intelligence today, so maybe somebody should get busy and invent some. Maybe somebody like Elon Musk.