Space junk has been a growing concern for aerospace insiders and skywatchers alike. Besides interfering with viewing, “dead” satellites with orbits that have not deteriorated enough to cause them to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere might collide with functional satellites that are important for Earth observations, military operations, and the worldwide economy.
Some parties have expressed concern about SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, which will grow to as many as 42,000 satellites if things go as planned. Starlink competitor ViaSat has filed a regulatory challenge over this large constellation, saying that it will inevitably add to the space debris problem. Elon Musk, of course, fired back by saying that ViaSat, which operates Internet satellites of its own, just doesn’t want the competition.
NASA recently signed a deal with SpaceX to share information on assets in space, including any changes to their orbits. This will help both parties improve their planning to avoid high-speed collisions between their assets. Even the smallest bit of debris can cause severe damage to multi-billion-dollar assets like the International Space Station, as seen in the below video of tests of the amount of damage that high-speed collisions can cause.
Elon Musk has said that, when the Starship rocket and spacecraft become operational, they could be used to help clean up the non-functional debris. Other proposals to solve the problem include D-Sat’s plan to attach a miniature “retro-rocket” pack to each satellite before it is launched. The pack can then function independently of the satellite to slow it down enough for it to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere when its useful life is over.
Most recently, the U.S. Space Force issued a “red alert” to SpaceX and competing satellite Internet provider OneWeb because a satellite from each company appeared to be on a collision course. The two satellites ended up passing within 190 feet of one another.
The potential impact apparently occurred because OneWeb launched 36 satellites close to a group of Starlink satellites to reach their intended orbit, about 550 kilometers higher than the altitude that Starlink operates at. If the two satellites had collided, it could have caused hundreds of pieces of debris to go flying and possibly hit other space-based assets.
While the two companies attempted to coordinate, SpaceX disabled the Starlink satellites’ AI-powered collision avoidance system in an attempt to make things a bit more predictable for OneWeb as it tried to maneuver its satellites out of the way. Even so, OneWeb chief of government, regulation, and engagement Chris McLaughlin was critical of SpaceX’s plan to launch thousands of Starlink satellites into a low enough orbit to cause an issue for other companies that are launching satellites into higher orbits.
He called OneWeb’s plan to launch only 648 satellites to a higher orbit to provide global coverage “a more responsible use of space.”
SpaceX claims that the lower orbits will reduce latency times for Internet-based data signals relayed through orbiting satellites, which could be attractive to gamers who favor fast response times in their online games. The latest launch of OneWeb satellites brings its current total up to 146 satellites. SpaceX currently has more than 1,400 Starlink satellites in orbit.