A number of companies are working on plans to launch massive satellite constellations. Their uses range from providing internet to security-related surveillance and are already showing a lot of potential. However, some fear that the negative effects of putting tens of thousands of new satellites into orbit could be profound.
For the first time, NASA is weighing in on a private company’s plan to launch a satellite constellation. The space agency had a clear message for AST & Science, a firm planning to launch 240 giant 5G satellites. It says that the consequences could be “catastrophic” as the satellites could cause thousands of collisions every year.
In response, AST says that it is committed to working with NASA to make its constellation safe.
The problem with adding thousands of new satellites to orbit is that there is only so much room up there. When too many satellites are present collisions can start to occur. Given that satellites travel at extremely high speeds, each collision creates a shotgun effect of debris that can damage nearby satellites. Experts fear that this sort of chain reaction could cripple the world’s satellite infrastructure if it gets out of hand.
Large satellite constellations increase the risk of collisions, thus creating a conundrum.
Constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink feature relatively small units that are able to move out of the way to avoid collisions. However, the satellites being pitched by AST are much, much larger. They are designed to beam 5G to Earth, potentially reshaping the way people think about cellular connections.
Of course, that would be a good thing. Starlink satellites are already showing promising results by delivering Wi-Fi connections faster than those currently available to 95 percent of Americans. Satellites may also excel at creating a strong global 5G network.
While the future of internet connectivity may indeed be focused on space, there are some problems with AST’s approach.
Aside from the size of the satellites, NASA fears that the company’s inexperience could lead to a high number of failures. The agency suggested that up to 10 percent may fail. It argues that this would pose an “unacceptably high” risk.
NASA’s statement reads, “For the completed constellation of 243 satellites, one can expect 1,500 mitigation actions per year and perhaps 15,000 planning activities. This would equate to four maneuvers and 40 active planning activities on any given day.”
NASA doesn’t have the direct authority to ban AST from launching its 5G satellite constellation. Of course, it doesn’t need to. If the agency determines that the plan shouldn’t move forward, other government agencies with the authority to block it will certainly side with NASA.
That being said, there is still plenty of time for AST to adapt. If the company is able to prove that it can decrease the risks posed by its satellites, it may be able to launch the 5G constellation after all.
Meanwhile, the successes (and failures) of competing constellations, like Starlink, will likely set a precedent for the industry moving forward. It will be interesting to see if NASA continues to get involved.