Will Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites ruin space travel?
I’ve been meaning to talk with Elon about this. “Elon,” I’ll say, or perhaps “Mr. Musk” – titans of industry always like it when you suck up – “you know that tech world saying about moving fast and breaking things? This may not be the best place to try that out.”
I speak here of low earth orbit (LEO), the region from 160 km to 2,000 km above the earth. Starlink, a venture of Musk’s SpaceX rocket company, is building what space folk call an LEO satellite constellation – a global satellite-based Internet service that, when the first phase is complete, will comprise 12,000 satellites providing high-speed broadband service to most of the planet, including lots of places with poor or non-existent connectivity now.
Twelve thousand is an impressive number, but what’s even more impressive is that Starlink as of March 2023 had 3,227 satellites up and working, according to one space tracking buff, making the firm by far the largest private satellite operator in the world. If you’re in the market and live in an area where Starlink is available – right now coverage is mostly limited to the developed world – you’ll pay $599 for a satellite dish plus $120 per month for service.
That’s for Starlink Basic, as it were. There’s more coming after that. SpaceX has gotten permission from the Federal Communication Commission to add another 30,000 satellites, for a total of 42,000. And now that Starlink has demonstrated proof of concept, competitors are piling in. Amazon has obtained FCC approval for Project Kuiper, a 3,236-satellite constellation, and China is known to be planning a constellation with 13,000 satellites. One consulting firm predicts a total of 24,500 satellites will be launched by 2031; others claim it’ll be more like 100,000.
Which is why the fail-fast attitude of Musk and other technologists has a lot of people worried. A recent study found satellite streaks on images taken by the Hubble space telescope. We’re seeing headlines like “Elon Musk should not be in charge of the night sky,” which is a slight exaggeration, since Starlink’s plans need federal approval. But the thinking is, the FCC’s expertise is in communications, not space. They’re basically letting Musk do what he wants.
One big concern is the Kessler syndrome, which your columnist has written about in the past: a satellite collides with another orbiting object, flinging thousands of shards in all directions, which smash into other orbiting objects, which themselves explode, creating still more flying junk … you get the picture. Possible result: the sky is filled with so much fast-moving space debris that LEO becomes unusable.
To be clear, the Kessler syndrome won’t be a chain-reaction disaster that all happens at once; rather, collisions will become more frequent over time. China has already claimed a couple of Starlink near-misses (the U.S. disputes this). In 2021, UK researchers claimed Starlink was responsible for 1,600 close encounters between spacecraft per week – and the company had a lot fewer satellites aloft then.
So there’s a tradeoff. On the one hand, “Starlink [could] ruin space travel forever,” as one tabloid headline breathlessly put it. On the other, you’ll be able to download cat videos in the middle of the Sahara. Or, more seriously, maintain vital Internet communication if your country is invaded by aggressors who trash the land lines, as happened in Ukraine.
Collisions aren’t the only potential problem with Starlink and other satellite constellations. A sampling of other issues:
They’re interfering with astronomical research. The thousands of shiny spacecraft criss-crossing the sky are messing up astronomical observations, not only those made from ground-based facilities but also, as indicated, expensive space telescopes that were supposed to be immune to earthly drawbacks. An analysis found that 3% of Hubble time exposures were marred by satellite streaks.
They could wreck the climate . You thought the climate was already wrecked? Things can always get worse. After getting flak for putting some satellites into relatively high orbits free of atmospheric friction, where they’d stay circling for decades, Starlink dropped their altitude by half, meaning they’ll drop out of orbit when obsolete and burn up after a relatively short time. But that might not be such a good idea either. As noted in a 2021 study, satellites are mostly made of aluminum, and when they disintegrate on re-entry, they could become the main source of high-altitude aluminum particles, far exceeding what we get naturally from meteoroids. Scattering clouds of aluminum dust at high altitudes was once proposed as a way of blocking the sun to head off global warming, an idea generally considered insane. Now, the authors warn, Starlink and other satellite operators are going to be doing it anyway as an “uncontrolled experiment.”
They’ll block the view of astronomers looking for deadly asteroids. Astronomers are said to find Starlink satellites especially bothersome at sunset and sunrise, prime viewing time for spotting asteroids on a collision course with earth. Scoffers may say: We’ve gotten through our entire history as a species without worrying about asteroids, and now they’re a five-alarm crisis? Apparently they are, and one concedes we had that doozy in Siberia in 1908. As yet unanswered is what we do about a killer asteroid if we find one, but one problem at a time.
With all that going on, it’s no surprise tech critic Paris Marx in the above-cited essay for Time magazine sniffily wonders who appointed Elon Musk king of the sky, and chances are the current era of minimal oversight will soon be coming to an end. In 2021, the G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the US, and the European Union – agreed to work on ways to manage space traffic. But Russia and China, both potentially major players, aren’t part of the conversation. Given the hostile international environment, the kind of thing that would really help – say, a global clearinghouse for info on current and planned orbital activity by all nations – is likely a long way off.
Even so, a more rigorous regulatory process of some kind is on the horizon. Paris Marx doesn’t specify who he’d rather have in charge of the night sky instead of Elon Musk, but it’s easy to imagine some faceless agency or perhaps – dare I say it – an international constellation of faceless agencies whose signoff will be required for future launches. Applicants for new satellite systems no doubt will have to file detailed plans including environmental impact statements or equivalent documentation – and considering how massive these documents are for projects affecting relatively tiny parts of the U.S., one shudders to think what they’ll be like when the stakeholders consist of everyone on earth.
There are sure to be public comment periods in which everybody from astronomers to the Sierra Club to wealthy owners of mountaintop retreats will get the chance to kvetch about the deleterious impact of more spacecraft on their professional work, the climate, the biota, their emotional well-being, and whatever else they consider important, or at any rate figure will hold up the project. Proponents will likely have to put up multibillion-dollar bonds against damages. There will be abundant opportunities for lawsuits. If terrestrial projects are any indication, approvals will drag out for years.
Which is too bad in some ways. For all the complaints and dire warnings, little has gone seriously wrong since Starlink began heaving satellites aloft at 60 or so a pop (seriously, the launch vehicles look like giant Pez dispensers). The one unplanned collision between orbiting objects occurred in 2009, long before Starlink. Not to go all Ayn Rand on you, but whatever you think of Elon Musk, you have to give the guy credit for creating an entire industry – well, revolutionizing an industry; I realize outfits like Iridium have been around awhile – in just a few years, mostly on his own say-so. For better or worse, that era will soon be over and won’t come again.
Then again, it’s not gone yet, and international regulatory initiatives being the slow-moving beasts they are, it may linger for a while – unless, of course, something goes disastrously wrong and the public demands action. Which is why Musk, or at any rate his minions at SpaceX, would be wise to move deliberately and not break things they can’t fix.
For the most part it appears that’s what they’ve done – see the firm’s 2/22/22 statement of changes made in response to complaints here. These measures have been reasonably well received by critics, from what I can tell, but there’s still concern about what Starlink’s competitors might do.
Long story short, the arrival of the bureaucrats is inevitable, Elon. Just don’t hasten the day.
– CECIL ADAMS
After some time off to recharge, Cecil Adams is back! The Master can answer any question. Post questions or topics for investigation in the Cecil’s Columns forum on the Straight Dope Message Board, boards.straightdope.com/.