Covering a list of concerns in a letter directed towards SpaceX, NASA addresses their worries over the introduction of 30,000 new satellites in low orbit.
Earlier this year, Elon Musk’s SpaceX submitted an application to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) seeking approval for an estimated 30,000 more satellites to be sent into low orbit in the second generation of their Starlink program. This program already has 12,000 approved satellites to its name, 1,900 of which are already in orbit according to ARS Technica.
At the beginning of February, NASA released a comment on this application, sending a letter to the FCC stating their concerns regarding the safety and wellbeing of scientific technology and the planet. The letter opens by discussing the congestion this second generation of satellites will cause in the Earth’s lower orbit, where 6,100 satellites are already present. This proposal, if accepted, would allow SpaceX to increase the number of low satellites by five times — doubling the number of satellites in space overall. With the increased volume of technology in space, NASA worries it will lead to difficulty tracking threats to the International Space Station (ISS) and other assets.
If there were to be a threat, moving one craft out of the way when there are so many clustered in one area could result in requiring multiple crafts to move, increasing the chances of a traffic jam in space. Because all crafts controlled by NASA and SpaceX are maneuvered remotely, both agencies claim that despite the number of satellites currently in orbit, there is zero chance of potential collisions. However, by increasing the volume of satellites, there is a higher risk of not every spacecraft being able to maneuver out of the way, which creates new chances for collisions.
Considering collisions, NASA has dedicated a program to tracking potential asteroid collisions with Earth. With so many more potential satellites in orbit, though, the letter outlines concerns regarding asteroids potentially hiding behind the thousands of satellites. Glares from the sun will also bounce off of the material, blinding commanders and even interfering with data coming from the Hubble space telescope.
The presence of more satellites will decrease the launch window for future rockets, restricting engineering and logistics, as well as interfere with radio frequency, the letter continues.
NASA, though, includes in their letter their willingness to work with SpaceX to confirm the proper implementation of their program. They hold safety at the forefront but are still curious for potential scientific discoveries, leading them to pen recommendations throughout. The agency ends the letter by saying, “NASA looks forward to SpaceX’s sustained support in our mutual endeavor to safely operate all spacecraft,” in an effort to show their equal support and concern.
Since the release of the letter, SpaceX has posted an update on their website to reiterate their safety guarantee. With graphs and data, they detail their support of their five best practices regarding satellites including satellite construction described as 99% reliable, operating in low orbit to minimize debris, monitoring health of low orbit satellites, sharing information with the world on the orbit and developing a modern system to monitor collisions.
With these low orbiting satellites, SpaceX defends their purpose to bring internet connection to everyone around the world, meaning the satellites were specifically manufactured for low-Earth orbit. In fact, the Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine asked Elon Musk if he could activate Starlink stations amidst the invasion from Russia to aid with connectivity issues. Within the same day, Musk tweeted they were activated.
The update concludes with the following quote, “SpaceX is proud of our sophisticated and constantly improving design, test, and operational approach to improve space sustainability and safety, which are critical towards accelerating space exploration while bringing internet connectivity around the globe.” It then continues, “Together we can ensure that space is available for humanity to use and explore for generations to come,” agreeing with the sentiments of NASA in their letter as well as intending and promising safety with the implementation of this next generation, should it be approved.
To read the letter yourself, find it at the following link
To read SpaceX’s response, use the following link