Starlink Constellation will provide 90% of all dangerous encounters in low-Earth orbit: there are already 1,600 of them weekly

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Starlink Constellation will provide 90% of all dangerous encounters in low-Earth orbit: there are already 1,600 of them weekly
Starlink Constellation will provide 90% of all dangerous encounters in low-Earth orbit: there are already 1,600 of them weekly

Orbital mechanics for a person unfamiliar with its intricacies looks not at all intuitive. Considering the speed of spacecraft movement, even their passage at a distance of a kilometer from each other is considered potentially dangerous. Now half of these events - 1,600 weekly - take place with the participation of Starlink satellites. And in the future, this number will reach truly astronomical proportions, which greatly worries specialized specialists.

Starlink Constellation will provide 90% of all dangerous encounters in low-Earth orbit: there are already 1,600 of them weekly

The online edition asked the opinion of a leading European expert on this issue. Commentary was provided by Hugh Lewis, head of the Research Group: Astronautics - University of Southampton. It regularly issues forecasts of changes in the number of cases of dangerous proximity of spacecraft based on data from the international SOCRATES system. This powerful tool is kept up to date by the Celestrack organization.

According to Lewis, an alarming situation has been developing recently: by the time the full constellation of Starlink telecommunications satellites (about 12 thousand vehicles) is deployed, they will be involved in 90% of all dangerous encounters in near-earth orbit. Already, about 3,200 such incidents occur every week, half of which involve SpaceX satellites. Moreover, in 500 cases out of 1600 they fly at a distance of a kilometer or less from the devices of other operators. The rest is the convergence of two Starlink satellites with each other.

And this despite the fact that there are just over 1,650 Starlink mega-constellation satellites in orbit. For comparison, SpaceX's closest competitor in the field of creating constellations of Internet satellites, OneWeb, has so far brought out only 250 with a small number of devices. They, in turn, dangerously approach the satellites of other operators, on average, 80 times a week (Lewis does not specify how many times with each other).

The severity of the problem

The United States Space Force has some of the most advanced instruments for observing space debris and spacecraft in low-Earth orbit. The US Space Surveillance Network is currently constantly tracking about 30,000 objects larger than 10 centimeters in diameter. In the coming years, this number will increase tenfold, not only due to the launch of new satellites into space, but also due to the improvement of radars.

Nevertheless, even such accurate reconnaissance means that the US military (and all users of their database) have at their disposal can predict the trajectory of most small objects with an error of at least one hundred meters. Therefore, the approach of a kilometer is already considered dangerous - space debris or small satellites can be anywhere within such a virtual bubble with a diameter of a couple of hundred meters. Naturally, the correction of the orbit of the dodging vehicle must also be calculated with a large margin.

According to the statistics of the American company Kayhan Space, the operator, which is in charge of fifty satellites, receives about 300 warnings of dangerous encounters every week.This is a big load on the staff and it only grows with the increase in man-made "constellations" in near-earth orbit. Kayhan Space develops software and hardware solutions for "space traffic management" for satellite operators and works with the U.S. Space Surveillance Network directly. Of the above three hundred warnings, a dozen will definitely require active action.

The problem is that avoiding rapprochement is always a cost of precious fuel. As a result, the more satellites in orbit and the more often dangerous situations develop, the more likely an incident is when the operator makes a risky decision to ignore the warning. This is a completely irresponsible move, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist and satellite hunter at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The risk factor is considered by people constantly, for example, when driving a car, when the success of various maneuvers is assessed. But in orbit, the cost of error is incredibly high. First, the collision will lead to the failure of two vehicles at once. And secondly, the resulting space debris will permanently close the accident area for use. Sometimes for decades.

An extreme example is the burial orbits of Soviet reconnaissance satellites of the Legenda system (750-1000 kilometers) with nuclear reactors on board. Some devices of the series have leaked a saline coolant, which froze and formed thousands of small metal balls - a real space shrapnel. The "life" of all this debris in orbit is estimated at two and a half hundred years.

Historical experience and perspectives

But on the other hand, not everything is so scary. Yes, of course, SpaceX, despite its little experience in administering satellite constellations, has already become a de facto monopoly in this area. And, I must admit, she is doing well - not a single truly serious incident has happened in two years. The eccentric billionaire's ambitious firm has developed and implemented effective solutions that allow almost all potential collisions to be resolved in a semi-automatic mode.

Although this approach causes some problems for the industry as a whole. For example, SpaceX does not tell colleagues in the shop about all the evasive maneuvers that its vehicles perform. And this complicates forecasting the development of the situation in orbit. Nevertheless, progress cannot be stopped, and mankind has only one way - to develop mechanisms for regulating near-earth space. So the alarmism of scientists is undoubtedly justified, but it should be taken only as a call to speed up the process of developing the necessary tools.

People have been actively "populating" orbits around the Earth for more than a dozen years. But collisions of satellites with each other happened only twice, and there were not much more incidents when space debris disabled any apparatus. So, even before the appearance of "mega-constellations", people successfully coped with the control of the situation in near-earth space. Now you just need to improve this skill of civilization.

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