SpaceX is dominating orbit with its Starlink satellites, making the risk of space traffic collision a serious hazard, industry experts say

Source: Business Insider

Kate Duffy

  • SpaceX Starlink satellites have taken over the lower Earth orbit, experts told Insider.
  • There are apparently 1,300 Starlink satellites in lower orbit and 300 from other entities.
  • “We’re not at the end of the world yet but it’s a serious situation,” another space researcher said.

SpaceX is rapidly deploying its Starlink internet network across the globe with rocket launches happening on a monthly basis.

By rapidly adding to the number of satellites in orbit, space industry experts believe Elon Musk’s space company is heightening the risk of collisions between space objects, generating an abundance of debris.

SpaceX’s Starlink has blasted around 1,300 satellites into orbit and plans for a megaconstellation of up to 42,000 spacecraft in mid-2027.

In October, Starlink launched its Better Than Nothing Beta test across the northern US for $99 a month, plus $499 for the kit. It now operates in more than six countries and has more than 10,000 users worldwide. 

Starlink has previously said its satellites can avoid collisions using an ion drive, which allows it to dodge other objects in orbit. But if the satellites’ communications or operations fail in orbit, they become hazards to space traffic.

In the lower part of the Low Earth Orbit (LEO), Starlink satellites “are completely dominating the space object population,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Insider on Tuesday. 

He said there are around 300 other satellites in the lower LEO, including the International Space Station, in comparison to the 1,300 Starlink satellites.

“There’s a point at which they are so many of them manoeuvering all the time that it’s a hazard to traffic” in space, McDowell said, adding that the hazard can result in a massive collision, creating junk.

Each satellite travels at 18,000 miles per hour and all of them are going in different directions, according to McDowell. If they smash into each other, it sends hypersonic shockwaves through the satellites and reduces them into thousands of pieces of shrapnel which then make a shell around the Earth, he said.

This becomes a threat to other space users and an obstruction for astronomers observing the skies.

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