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Tags: elon musk | spacex | nsa

Elon Musk's Starlink Satellites Pose Collision Risks in Space

Elon Musk
Elon Musk attends Time Person of the Year on Dec. 13, 2021 in New York City. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Time)

By    |   Tuesday, 15 February 2022 12:05 PM EST

NASA is concerned that Elon Musk's company SpaceX, which is sending satellites into space, may be causing traffic congestion and potential collisions.

SpaceX has been ramping up satellite deployments to power Starlink, a satellite internet constellation that provides Internet access coverage to most of the Earth.

In January, SpaceX asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to authorize the company to use a particular setup for 30,000 additional satellites it would send up over time, The Wall Street Journal reported. Those satellites represent most of the 42,000-satellite fleet that SpaceX hopes to deploy for Starlink.

NASA said in an early February letter to the FCC that the 30,000 devices would significantly boost the number of tracked objects in space, by a factor of more than five in certain lower orbits, The Journal reported.

"An increase of this magnitude into these confined altitude bands inherently brings additional risk of debris-generating collision events," the space agency said in the letter, The Journal reported.

NASA also expressed concerns about how the automated-maneuvering systems that Starlink satellites use may interact with other similar networks of satellites, given the lack of regulation.

NASA depends on SpaceX to fly astronauts to the International Space Station and pays the company for other missions.

More crowded orbits near Earth is concerning because collisions that generate debris could make orbits more dangerous for astronauts and other spacecraft to operate in.

In addition to SpaceX, other companies plan to launch constellations to the lower end of orbit to deliver faster internet service with fewer delays.

Starlink has the largest constellation at present, researchers say. In a recent tweet, Elon Musk said SpaceX's 1,741 Starlink devices were active or moving toward operational orbits.

SpaceX has said it has taken measures to avoid leaving debris in orbit, including deploying satellites in relatively low altitudes where they can re-enter the atmosphere and break down. The company has also told the FCC that the satellites shift if the probability of collision is greater than one in 100,000.

But Comspoc Corp. has estimated that the 42,000 satellites that SpaceX has said it would like to deploy could be involved in 52 collisions and 1.8 million maneuvers over 10 years based on the current number of tracked objects. Comscop develops solutions to address current and emerging challenges in the space operational environment, arising from intentional threats as well as hazards such as space debris.

Jim Cooper, lead for space-situational awareness solutions at Comspoc, said basic rules like managing right of ways don't exist right now.

In 2020, the FCC updated orbital-debris mitigation rules for the first time in more than 15 years, The Journal reported. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said then that the agency needed to do more to address collision and debris risks.

There are more than 250,000 Starlink user terminals, according to Musk, Forbes reported.

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Elon Musk's satellite internet venture is fueling concerns from one of SpaceX's most important customers-the National Aeronautics and Space Administration-about traffic congestion and potential collisions hundreds of miles above Earth.
elon musk, spacex, nsa
Tuesday, 15 February 2022 12:05 PM
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