When you read the terms “space”, “clutter” and “junk”, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m about to launch into a Marie Kondo-esque lecture on the power of tidying up.
Except I’m not talking about rolling up your socks in your bedroom drawer, but the satellites and debris that orbit our planet.
In October, New Scientist reported that a major collision between two “old spacecraft” was narrowly avoided, passing within just 12 metres of each other on 16th of the month:
“The two objects are a Soviet Parus navigation satellite launched in 1989 and a Chinese rocket booster launched in 2009. Neither has any method of propulsion onboard, so there is no way to steer them away from one another…
“Such a collision would have reduced both spacecraft to clouds of shrapnel hurtling through orbit and potentially smashing into other satellites.”
Whilst a serious incident was avoided on this occasion, it serves to illustrate the dangers of sending an ever-increasing number of satellites into space. So, why does it keep happening?
According to an article from CNN, an estimated 107,000 low-Earth orbit satellites (known as “LEOsats”) are scheduled to be launched within the next decade:
“The astronomy community grew concerned about these manmade constellations after SpaceX's initial launch of 60 Starlink communication satellites on a single rocket in May 2019. More launches have taken place since then, and future launches are planned…
“Prior to launch, SpaceX had suggested that the satellites would be just barely visible, according to the American Astronomical Society. Within days of the launch, it was clear to astronomers and stargazers alike that the metal satellites, which reflected the light of the sun, appeared as bright as astronomical constellations in the night sky.”
It’s true. Given the right timing and conditions, it is possible to look up at the night sky and observe the satellites passing over head – one after another after another. Likened to “strands of pearls”, Elon Musk’s approved network of 12,000 satellites (with more planned) are intended to provide high-performance internet access anywhere in the world to anyone with a small, affordable receiver.
But not everyone is happy about it:
“Astronomers estimate that these satellite "swarms" could become the dominant bright objects in our sky, rather than stars. That disruption could change how astronomers, professional and amateur, see the night sky.”
I published a video about Elon Musk’s endeavours earlier in 2020 debating this very issue. After all, 12,000 satellites at altitudes of between 550 and 1150 km is A LOT. Is super-fast internet access worth the risk of adding to an already problematic amount of space junk? Or losing sight of the beautiful star-studded skies we’ve become so accustomed to?
The idea that teachers of the future may need to explain what Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” represents is a scary thought indeed. Who knows, maybe he’ll be considered prophetic for those swirling daubs of paint – they aren’t stars, but big hunks of metal with “Property of E. Musk” emblazoned on the side.
But what can be done?
A report by the American Astronomical explains the need for urgent action in the report’s executive summary:
“Existing and planned large constellations of bright satellites in low-Earth orbit will fundamentally change astronomical observing at optical and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths. Nighttime images without the passage of a Sun-illuminated satellite will no longer be the norm.
“If the 100,000 or more LEOsats proposed by many companies and many governments are deployed, no combination of mitigations can fully avoid the impacts of the satellite trails on the science programs of current and planned ground-based optical-NIR astronomy facilities. Astronomers are just beginning to understand the full range of impacts on the discipline.
“Astrophotography, amateur astronomy, and the human experience of the stars and the Milky Way are already affected.”
The report goes on to suggest six potential approaches to mitigate the impact of LEOsat constellations on astronomy:
1. Launch fewer or no LEOsat constellations. This is the only option identified that can achieve zero impact.
2. Deploy satellites at orbital altitudes no higher than ~600 km.
3. Darken satellites by lowering their albedo, shading reflected sunlight, or some combination thereof.
4. Control each satellite’s attitude in orbit so that it reflects less sunlight to Earth.
5. Remove or mask satellite trails and their effects in images.
6. Avoid satellite trails with the use of accurate ephemerides.
I won’t pretend to know what all of that means, but one thing is clear: space needs closer regulation, and it needs it now. Excerpts from a thought piece in New Scientist magazine by Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at the University of New Hampshire, cement this view.
Speaking of how a treasured observatory came worryingly close to going up in a smoke in the Californian wildfires, she outlines how climate change isn’t the only human activity that threatens her field:
“This year, it sunk in that there is nothing stopping SpaceX and Amazon from blighting low Earth orbit with their new satellite constellations, forever altering our capacity to see the universe from our planet’s surface. Facilities like the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, where I am a member of the dark matter working group, must now plan to have all of their future images of distant galaxies and other objects disrupted by thousands of satellites that make image analysis that much harder.”
Amazon’s Project Kuiper received a boost in July 2020, when the Federal Communications Commission approved the deployment and operation of 3,236 satellites with the aim of delivering satellite-based high-speed, low-latency broadband services to the United States. And with 10 billion dollars of investment already announced, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know Amazon are unlikely to stop there.
As things stand, space junk doesn’t pose a significant risk to exploration efforts, but it does to other satellites. According to the UK’s Natural History Museum, there are already 3,000 “dead” satellites in the Earth’s orbit, 34,000 pieces of space junk larger than 10 centimetres and a whopping 128 million pieces of space junk larger than 1 millimetre.
Time will tell how serious an impact SpaceX and Amazon’s initiatives will have on the space around our planet, but one thing is for sure – that “galaxy far, far away” that George Lucas introduced us to is going to seem further away than ever before.