New Satellite Broadband Push Could Create Surge in ‘Space Junk’

This will inevitably happen sooner or later. Someday, we’ll probably need a solution for hauling off old satellites that are no longer in use or practical.

A new study from the University of Southampton claims that the latest rush to expand broadband access via constellations of lower-orbit satellites could result in a dramatic spike in “catastrophic” space accidents.

Google, SpaceX, Boeing and Samsung are all contemplating using low-orbit satellite to provide broadband with slightly less of the crippling latency we’ve grown accustomed to. The problem is that if these launches aren’t done in a controlled way, we’ll see a notable spike in “space junk” leading to collisions with spacecraft and other satellite, Dr Hugh Lewis warns the Guardian.

“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 Lewis.

Lewis ran a 200-year simulation to determine the end result of the expected rise in orbital traffic, and found it could create a 50% increase in the number of “catastrophic collisions” between satellites. And space junk was already a problem, with 750,000 objects larger than 1cm orbiting Earth — and each traveling at speeds of 40,000 km/h — resulting in the potential collision impact of a hand grenade.

The European Space Agency, which funded Lewis s research, is pushing to ensure that companies developing low-orbit broadband satellite constellations design them so they’re able to move to lower altitudes and burn up in orbit once their mission is ended. Dr Holger Krag, in charge of monitoring space junk at the ESA, worries that private, inexperienced companies may be under financial pressure to cut corners in the way taxpayer-funded space ventures often don’t have to, resulting in more problems.

“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 maneuver.”

“Right now, under all the taxpayer-funded space flight we are doing today is only able to achieve 60% of success rate for that maneuver. How can they be better under commercial pressure and with cheaper satellites? That s the worry we have.”

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