Elon Musk’s SpaceX might be breaking the barriers here on Earth but it will most probably break up satellites in space in the near future. In a bid to offer high-speed internet, SpaceX is launching thousands of minisatellites in what is already a crowded space. The number of close shaves is on the rise and the problem will intensify in the near future, LiveScience reported.
According to estimates from the European Space Agency, there are 7,520 satellites that are currently in space. As these fly around their orbits, they are bound to encounter other satellites. A close encounter is when two flying objects come within a distance of 0.6 miles (1 km) of each other.
The Satellite Orbital Conjunction Reports Assessing Threatening Encounters in Space (SOCRATES) database keeps a track of the movement of satellites as well as space debris to assess their collision risk. When they seem to be in a close encounter, it sends an alert to satellite operators who then make appropriate maneuvers to avoid a collision.
With the acute increase in the number of satellites going up due to the Starlink program, the number of close encounters has dramatically increased in the past two years according to Hugh Lewis, an expert in space debris at the University of Southampton. Among themselves, the Starlink satellites have 1,600 close encounters every week. They also account for 500 encounters with other satellites in space.
The problem is further compounded by two factors. The first one is that, even with 1,740 satellites launched, SpaceX is still in the initial stages of its program that is expected to launch 12,000 satellites during its decade-long first-generation phase. Secondly, Starlink satellites are designed to avoid collisions autonomously. Therefore, when at risk, the satellites simply change their course and enter a new trajectory, which other satellites are not aware of.
Lewis told LiveScience that SpaceX doesn’t actually publicize its satellites’ maneuvers however they are making small corrections all the time. Currently, there is no mechanism to share this information other than a manual release, and with the increase in the number of Starlink satellites, the solution is not scalable at all.
Even a small collision such as one reported for Chinese satellite, Yunhai 1-02, earlier this year, creates more debris that needs to be cataloged and tracked as it further increases the risk of collisions in the future.