Already dangerous, satellite dodgems gets more perilous by the day

Martyn Warwick
By Martyn Warwick

Aug 3, 2020

  • White-knuckle ride in space. A chain-reaction of unstoppable collisions could happen any time
  • Most congested orbits could suffer more than 400 major incidents by 2030
  • Management" & "Space Traffic": Two mutually exclusive concepts

Back in 2018 the Trump administration published "Space Policy Directive-3", to make the US Department of Commerce (DoC) responsible for administration and control over extant and proposed low-earth orbit (LEO) and other satellite systems. Orbital space around much of the planet is now so congested that the designation of a central authority to oversee at least the US systems was deemed to be vital to prevent immensely expensive and potentially very dangerous collisions between satellites and other orbiting spacecraft.

In a speech made at the time of the announcement, Vice President Mike Pence said, "President Trump knows that a stable and orderly space environment is critical to the strength of our economy and the resilience of our national security systems." As soon as the words were out of his mouth inter-agency bureaucratic infighting broke-out as the Commerce Department and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) went head-to-head over who should be in charge - and get the federal funding.

The DoC has the backing of President Trump and claims itself be best placed to administer the burgeoning commercial exploitation of space, a sector which is growing in importance and innovation with every passing day. However, the FAA has powerful industrial and political support (including influential Members of Congress) who claim that it is logical and sensible to extend the remit of the FAA from the stratosphere up into orbital space where the air is undeniably thinner but the view, politically, militarily and financially is just so much better.

The net result of this has been a continuing impasse between the two agencies while the Pentagon has been left, very reluctantly and by default, with the responsibility for tracking satellites and orbital debris. It is doing so with systems and software which are creaking at the seams and a generation past their sell-by date.

Nothing whatsoever can now happen before November's presidential election and, realistically, nothing is likely happen for several years thereafter as space gets more and more overcrowded and the chances of devastating collisions multiply. 

The Kuiper constellation alone, a pet project of the world's richest man, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, is in the process of adding a further 3,236 LEOs to the mix and the disposition of many other rival systems are planned over the next few years. For example, Elon Musk's SpaceX is putting up a mere 12,000 'small satellites' as part of its Starlink Internet constellation. 

So, there isn't much elbow room up there there now - and it is getting worse. Pennsylvania-based Analytical Graphics Inc., (AGI) a software company serving the commercial and governmental space sector and which provides tracking systems for spacecraft and orbital debris, says that current plans call for at least 50,000 new satellites will be lofted into orbit around the earth over the next few years.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is watching the 22,000 chunks of four-inch wide (and wider, and longer and thicker) metal that are whirling around, and the millions of smaller pieces that accompany them. Any of these bits of space junk could hit a satellite or other spacecraft and cause massive problems both in space and on the ground. AGI calculates that over the next decade there may well be over 400 collisions and 17 MILLION "close calls" in and around the most congested orbits,

As the chances of in-space collisions multiply, vital satellite systems that we have taken for granted for so long, such as telecoms, tv, GPS, climate change, wildlife tracking and missile early warning could be destroyed or long-term disrupted. One satellite hitting another could create a wide field of debris travelling at tens of thousands of miles an hour that will smash into other systems and result in an unstoppable chain reaction that would have profound implications for any and all the space-based communications on which we all now rely for so much.

Ajit Pai, the chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), says, " A collision between two satellites could have a catastrophic impact on the space environment for centuries to come."

70 per cent of all space junk is in Low Earth Orbit

As things stand, companies proposing to launch new commercial satellite constellations have to "theoretically demonstrate" to the FCC that one satellite won't smash into another, be that within its own constellation or another, but accidents and miscalculations in space are much more unforgiving than they are on the planet's surface.

However, the National Space Council, a body, that while sited within the Executive Office of the President of the United States, was allowed to wither on the vine until Donald Trump reconstituted it, is pressing for the Office of Space Commerce (a tiny offshoot of the Department of Commerce itself) be "fully and properly funded to address, as a top priority, the emerging growth of large constellations in low Earth orbit and lay the foundation for management of future space traffic." When and/or if it gets the money it will have to, err... hit the ground running, as it were.

As 70 per cent of all the space debris circling the earth is in low earth orbit the chances of something not completely burning up on re-entry are that much greater than for spacecraft in higher orbits and so the chances of a solid lump of red hot something or other smacking down into an inhabited area and hitting buildings or people are that much greater.

Although the odds against such an event happening are certainly very long, cognisance has to be taken of the possibility, if not the probability, that there will be a terrestrial impact at some time in the future and that is why the FCC has updated its rules for the first time since 2004 and now requires applicants seeking permission to launch new satellites to provide  "numerical values of the risk of collision" and say exactly how decommissioned or defunct satellites will be "disposed of" at the end of their operational lives.

Simply letting them fall to earth somewhere (hopefully) over an ocean or remote land area is no longer good enough. Furthermore, enhanced collision avoidance systems must be designed and incorporated into new satellites and a "debris mitigation plan" submitted to the authorities.

Currently, satellites are licensed to remain in orbit for 25 years after being designated as being at "end of mission". This means there is tonne after tonne of redundant dead metal hurtling about the skies that would free-up much needed space in the most overcrowded 430 miles high to 560 miles high sector if they were safely returned to earth. In fact, the FCC did consider reducing the number of years a dead bird could stay in orbital situ, but in the end did not pursue such a policy change. No one seems to know why.

Remember though that in 2009 a defunct Russian satellite hit one of the Iridium LEO constellation. Iridium was able quickly to fly in an in-orbit spare to keep their service going but the collision resulted in some 2,000 large pieces of debris (which is classed as being of four or more inches in diameter) and many more thousands of smaller but potentially equally destructive shards being created and disbursed.

The way the satellites of the SpaceX constellation are built ensures there is enough propellant left in the tanks at the end of a satellites' useful life for it to be pitched into the earth's atmosphere at an angle sufficient to ensure total burn-up. What['s more, if that doesn't happen, for whatever reason, the satellites are programmed to drop out of orbit within a maximum of 355 days of being rendered redundant and fall into the oceans.

Meanwhile, many satellite companies, including Hughes, Intelsat, Inmarsat and Iridium have expressed concerns that Amazon has not submitted a casualty risk analysis of "the probability of human casualty" that might occur if satellites from the Kuiper constellation fall from orbit and remain intact enough after re-entry to hit the ground with a bang.

On average, one piece of space debris falls to earth a day, and the pieces are usually very small. Not always though. The one tonne European Space Agency craft "GOCE" hit the deck in 2013. The biggest uncontrolled re-entry to date was when Nasa’s 85-tonne space station Skylab came down over Western Australia and the Indian Ocean but the Russian MIR space station was deliberately de-orbited over the Pacific Ocean in 2001 weighed 135 tonnes. Now, they were dangerous.

However, according to Nasa estimates, the odds of a person being hit by a piece of space debris are one in 3200. Thus the chances of any particular individual being struck is actually trillions to one. Mind you, even those odds didn't help Chicken Licken.

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