More Expert Warnings that Space Junk Will Kill People This Decade; Tens of Thousands of Broadband Satellites Being Launched Anyway

By B.N. Frank

There are so many vehicles being launched into space in the U.S. and around the world it’s hard to keep track of all of them.  In the meantime, warnings about space junk causing fatalities as well as other risks from space vehicle launchings continue to be reported.  Regarding broadband satellites, it seems ridiculous to launch them everywhere when there are other ways to provide high-speed broadband.  Additionally, high speed broadband can be achieved more safely and securely with hardwired internet connections (see 1, 2). Nevertheless, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) continues to approve and sometimes fund the launching of tens of thousands broadband satellites despite poor reviews, opposition, and increasing warnings from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) as well as satellite companies themselves (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)!

To be fair, the agency has acknowledged problems with space junk and seems to be slowly addressing it; however, this may not be enough to resolve the issue before people start getting killed by space debris.

From Ars Technica:

Space debris expert: Orbits will be lost—and people will die—later this decade

“Flexing geopolitical muscles in space to harm others has already happened.”

Eric Berger

Up until about a decade ago, an average of 80 to 100 satellites per year were launched into varying orbits. Some reentered Earth’s atmosphere quickly, while others will remain in orbit for decades.

This now seems quaint. In the last five years, driven largely by the rise of communications networks such as SpaceX’s Starlink and a proliferation of small satellites, the number of objects launched into space has increased dramatically.

In 2017, according to the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, the annual number exceeded 300. By 2020, the annual number of objects launched exceeded 1,000 for the first time. This year, the total has already surpassed 2,000. With more broadband-from-space networks like Amazon’s Project Kuiper on the way, further growth can be expected.

This radically increasing number of satellites, most of which are orbiting within 1,000 km of the Earth’s surface, comes as low-Earth orbit is ever more cluttered with debris. For example, just last month, a Chinese Long March 6A rocket’s upper stage unexpectedly broke apart after delivering its payload into orbit. There are now more than 300 pieces of trackable debris at an altitude from 500 to 1,000 km. And in November 2021, Russia shot down its own Cosmos 1408 satellite, creating more than 1,000 fragments in orbit. NASA’s International Space Station still has to dodge this debris to this day.

Further Reading: Earth’s orbital debris problem is worsening, and policy solutions are difficult

At some point, the heavens above will reach a breaking point. Yes, space is big, but there is so much junk out there.

Scientists and engineers estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of pieces of orbital debris about the size of a blueberry that cannot be tracked. Given their velocities of many times the speed of sound, these small objects have the kinetic energy of a falling anvil. Then there are tens of thousands of pieces of trackable debris the size of a softball or larger that have the kinetic energy of a large bomb. While some of this debris gets dragged down into Earth’s atmosphere and burns up every day, humans are rapidly creating more of it.

To get a sense of this threat and how humans might clean up their act, Ars spoke with Moriba Jah, an astrodynamicist from the University of Texas at Austin. Jah is a superstar in the field of orbital debris and one of the foremost voices sounding the alarm about the rising tide of space junk and calling for humanity to preserve low-Earth orbit. He also serves as chief scientist for Privateer Space, a company he co-founded with Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak to better collect and share debris tracking data.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Sustainable or not?

Ars: Given what has happened over the last few years and what is expected to come, do you think the activity we’re seeing in low-Earth orbit is sustainable?

Moriba Jah: My opinion is that the answer is no, it’s not sustainable. Many people don’t like this whole “tragedy of the commons” thing, but that’s exactly what I think we’re on a present course for. Near-Earth orbital space is finite. We should be treating it like a finite resource. We should be managing it holistically across countries, with coordination and planning and these sorts of things. But we don’t do that.

I think it’s analogous to the early days of air traffic and even maritime and that sort of stuff. It’s like when you have a couple of boats that are coming into a place, it’s not a big deal. But when you have increased traffic, then that needs to get coordinated because everybody’s making decisions in the absence of knowing the decisions that others are making in that finite resource.

Ars: Is it possible to manage all of this traffic in low-Earth orbit?

Jah: Right now there is no coordination planning. Each country has plans in the absence of accounting for the other country’s plans. That’s part of the problem. So it doesn’t make sense. Like, if “Amberland” was the only country doing stuff in space, then maybe it’s fine. But that’s not the case. So you have more and more countries saying, “Hey, I have free and unhindered use of outer space. Nothing legally has me reporting to anybody because I’m a sovereign nation and I get to do whatever I want.” I mean, I think that’s stupid.

Ars: In the United States, right now, much of the regulation of satellite activity is conducted by the Federal Communications Commission. But it seems like they’re pretty pro-business, so they’re mostly permissive.

Jah: I’m also pro-business in space. The thing is the manner in which we do it. At the end of the day, based on international law codified in treaties and conventions from 1967 to 1972, liability for damage and harmful interference falls squarely on the shoulders of states party to the treaty. So governments are responsible, ultimately. Companies bear no liability for their behavior. Countries do.

Countries have the responsibility to authorize and provide continuing supervision of all activities of non-state actors. Governments, because they’re licensing and authorizing, get to hold their own people accountable. The thing that needs to happen is countries need to be passing national space laws that incentivize environmental protection and sustainability. Basically, they need to require that the people that they authorize to do stuff in space—businesses or whatever—adhere to those laws and are held accountable for them.

Ars: What about country-to-country interactions? What happens if a SpaceX Starlink satellite hits China’s Tiangong Space Station and causes serious damage?

Continue reading at Ars Technica

Activist Post reports regularly about space vehicles and unsafe technology.  For more information, visit our archives.

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