European Space Agency calls for measures to prevent 50 percent increase in catastrophic satellite collisions
The journey towards global wireless internet could result in a significant increase in the volume of ‘space junk’ within the earth’s orbit, according to a senior lecturer in aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton.
Companies such as Google and SpaceX are planning to launch “mega constellations” of satellites into low orbit in an effort to provide global broadband networks, but the deployment of thousands of new satellites would likely lead to a rise in catastrophic collisions.
Dr Hugh Lewis ran a 200-year simulation and found that the number of incidents between satellites could rise by as much as 50 percent due to such an increase in orbital traffic.
“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,” he said.
There are currently around 750,000 objects larger than 1cm orbiting Earth, travelling at average speeds of 40,000 km/h, meaning the space junk issue is already a very real one that future voyagers will have to navigate.
To help solve the problem, the European Space Agency has called for broadband-providing satellites to be moved into low altitude once they have served their purpose so that they burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
Dr Holger Krag, the head of the space debris office at the ESA, expressed concerns regarding the lack of experience tech companies have when it comes to working in space, we well as their cost-cutting ambitions.
“They are companies so they have competitors, so they have pressure,” he said. “Under these conditions they would have to manufacture satellites that are reliable enough after five years of operations to reliably conduct this disposal manoeuvre.
“Right now, under all the taxpayer-funded space flight we are doing today is only able to achieve 60 percent of success rate for that manoeuvre. How can they be better under commercial pressure and with cheaper satellites? That’s the worry we have.”