WASHINGTON — Humanity has launched 9,158 spacecraft since 1957, but a new animation illustrates just how dramatically that number is about to be eclipsed — and in an alarmingly short time.
However, there is now an unprecedented push by private companies to create globe-encircling networks of ultra-fast, high-throughput internet satellites through the end of this decade. Combined with other planned fleets of satellites from nations like China, up to 57,000 new satellites — 25 times today’s number of active spacecraft — may be orbiting Earth by 2029.
That’s according to Dan Oltrogge, an aerospace engineer at Analytical Graphics, Inc. and the director for the Center of Space Standards and Innovation. Oltrogge’s new animation (below) was featured at the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) 23rd annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference on Thursday in Washington, DC.
Oltrogge’s video was played during a panel at the conference just a day after two dead satellites — GGSE-4, an Air Force gravity-measuring satellite launched in 1967, and IRAS, a NASA-led infrared space telescope — narrowly avoided colliding over Pittsburgh. Had they smashed together, the event may have been visible from the ground and generated hundreds of thousands of pieces of space debris.
“These near misses are taking place much more frequently. They are not a once-a-year occurrence anymore,” Kevin O’Connell, the US Department of Commerce’s director of the Office of Space Commerce, said during the panel on Thursday.
But the near misses are happening prior to the ostensible arrival of tens of thousands of spacecraft shown in Oltrogge’s animation. Should even a fraction of those planned spacecraft make it orbit — Oltrogge suspects perhaps 5-15% of the 57,000 to make it through all the steps required to reach orbit — the situation around our planet would still see dramatic operational change.
“The problem we have today is complex and troubling,” O’Connell added as the animation played on a loop.
A million close encounters
SpaceX, founded by tech entrepreneur Elon Musk, is leading the pending boost in satellite numbers with Starlink: a fleet of up to 12,000 relatively low-flying, internet-beaming satellites that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved for launch.
Starlink may grow much larger than 12,000 spacecraft, too. In an FCC application submitted last year by SpaceX, the rocket company asked for permission to send up to another 30,000 satellites before the end of this decade, for a pending total of 42,000.
In an interview with Business Insider, Oltrogge said the emergence of SpaceX’s audacious plan, along with those of other companies — Iridium, OneWeb, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and even Apple included — spurred him and his colleagues to study the ramifications of large constellations. (The word “megaconstellations” is often used, but Oltrogge eschews the term because “mega” implies millions of satellites. “There’s nobody today proposing a million satellites,” he said.)
One consequence is an increasing number of potentially dangerous close encounters, according to a January 2020 white paper that Oltrogge co-authored. He and his colleagues wanted to know how frequently objects came within a mile of each other — defined as a close encounter.
“It’s a point where you might start thinking about doing an avoidance maneuver, or you might do the maneuver, or if you didn’t take any action, you could actually collide,” Oltrogge said. “For some constellations, it was like a million encounters over their 10-year lifetime.”
‘The sky is not falling’
The situation may seem dire, but Oltrogge said “it’s not the end of the world” and “the sky is not falling.”
For one, he said, there is plenty of space for many satellites to orbit Earth. Second, newer satellites are being built to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere at the end of their lifetimes rather than remain in orbit — where they could become another rogue IRAS or GGSE-4. And third, new satellites, including Starlink’s, are being designed to have avoidance systems to reduce the chance of accidental collisions.
But he said it’s inevitable that as more satellites go up, the current challenges of managing the space above Earth will grow in lockstep.
One pending issue is that telescopes, radar observatories, and other facilities that can track debris are like flashlights can only reveal so much debris at a time that may lead to close encounters. If and when we get more and better sensors, satellite operators will find more debris — and a larger challenge of labeling, tracking, and avoiding that space junk.
“We’re going to end up with potentially a 10-fold increase in the number of active satellites, a 10-fold increase in the number of debris, and therefore a huge increase in the number of encounters and things that operators are going to have to sift through and figure out, ‘Do I need to maneuver here, or can I just sit this one out?'” Oltrogge said.
He continued: “We have to get better and better data to support the whole enterprise. One of my favorite sayings is if you want to find a needle in a haystack, you need to get rid of the hay. A lot of times here in space-situational awareness, because we don’t quite have the quality and timeliness, of data that we need, we end up having a lot of false alarms.”
To manage the issue — and prevent the creation of debris fields that threaten all spacecraft — Oltrogge said SpaceX, Amazon, and other large-constellation companies will need to join other satellite operators not only in sharing data, but also working to develop smart algorithms that can efficiently get rid of the hay to reveal the dangerous needles.
“Thankfully these two satellites didn’t collide last night,” he said of IRAS or GGSE-4. “But some will collide later on.”
Morgan McFall-Johnsen contributed reporting to this post.