SpaceX is currently in the midst of a monumental endeavor. The spaceflight firm plans to launch a huge constellation consisting of 42,000 satellites that will work together to offer high-speed internet regardless of consumers’ geographic location.
In theory, it sounds like a great idea. Those in rural areas without reliable access to another form of internet would particularly benefit.
However, SpaceX’s Starlink project has some problems. For one, it is interfering with astronomers’ view of the heavens.
That might not be the worst issue, though. New data from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics shows that approximately three percent of the company’s orbiting Starlink satellites aren’t working as intended. The ones that have seemingly failed are now a huge hazard to other orbiting equipment. As SpaceX continues to grow its Starlink constellation, this problem will become even more worrisome.
Houston, We Have a Problem
SpaceX designed its Starlink satellites with a thrusting system that allows them to move out of the way of incoming debris. That’s a crucial part of maintaining a clean orbit. As more and more objects are launched into space, it becomes harder to avoid collisions. At speeds of 18,000mph in low Earth orbit, those objects promise instant destruction should they run into each other.
When working properly, SpaceX’s satellites are able to avoid collisions by temporarily moving out of position. Unfortunately, it appears that the thrust system has a relatively high failure rate (by aerospace standards).
So far, SpaceX has launched about 775 Starlink satellites. That means that about 23 of them are floating in orbit, waiting to be in a collision with another satellite or a piece of space junk.
That isn’t particularly concerning. After all, 23 satellites are nothing compared to the size of Earth’s orbital field. However, SpaceX plans to launch a total of 42,000 Starlink satellites. If the three percent failure rate persists, there would be as many as 1,260 immobile satellites circling the planet.
Harvard-Smithsonian Center astronomer Jonathan McDowell says, “I would say their failure rate is not egregious. It’s not worse than anybody else’s failure rates. The concern is that even a normal failure rate in such a large constellation is going to end up with a lot of bad space junk.”
Prior to launching its Starlink satellites, SpaceX had to undergo a deluge of regulatory proceedings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
In April 2017, SpaceX told the FCC, “Having taken such steps to reduce the risk of collision or malfunction, SpaceX views satellite failure to deorbit rates of 10 or 5 percent as unacceptable, and even a rate of 1 percent is unlikely.”
It later went on to say that it was targeting a failure rate of less than one percent, citing “sound practice to secure the safety of space generally, but also as a business imperative for a company like SpaceX that depends on regular access to and use of space.”
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how SpaceX handles this problem. It would be wise to halt upcoming Starlink launches until the problem is identified and fixed. Otherwise, space could quickly turn into a minefield. That would be detrimental to SpaceX’s future business plans and to everyone else who relies on satellites.