We talk often about how big space is, and indeed, it is really, mind-bogglingly big. However, space around Earth is feeling smaller all the time. SpaceX has launched the first few dozen of what will eventually grow to a swarm of thousands of satellites. Several days ago, the ESA had to perform the first-ever satellite avoidance maneuver to avoid colliding with a SpaceX Starlink satellite. This has prompted experts to call for a universal space traffic control system to avoid future collisions.
SpaceX plans to use its Starlink satellite network to deliver broadband internet access to Earth and deployed 60 of them earlier this year. That’s just the beginning, though. Elon Musk and company plan to have around 2,000 satellites in space by the end of 2019. Eventually, the SpaceX “mega constellation” will include more than 12,000 satellites. SpaceX isn’t the only company planning to launch large fleets of satellites, either. Companies like OneWeb and Kuiper intend to have large networks in Earth orbit soon.
Despite the hugeness of Space, the ESA’s Aeolus satellite (above) found itself on a possible collision course with Starlink 44 earlier this week. The chance of collision was about 1 in 1,000, but that’s 10 times higher than the ESA’s acceptable risk level. That’s not great, sure, but the real issue is the ESA was unable to contact SpaceX operators to discuss the problem. The agency decided to alter Aeolus’ course just to be safe, and no satellites were harmed.
SpaceX says a bug in its on-call paging system prevented officials from seeing the ESA’s messages. The company had last communicated with the ESA several days before when the estimated chance of collision was orders of magnitude less likely. However, all this communication happens over email, and the ESA contends this is a dangerously inefficient way to manage space traffic in the age of mega-constellations.
Statement from SpaceX on the ESA/Starlink potential collision on Monday pic.twitter.com/uEwJxwrzln
— Loren Grush (@lorengrush) September 3, 2019
There are currently about 5,000 satellites orbiting Earth, but only roughly 2,000 are active. SpaceX by itself could more than double the number of satellites whizzing around Earth. Add a few more companies with mega-constellations, and there could be some awful traffic jams. Attempting to coordinate all that via email is infeasible. Even one collision could produce thousands of microscopic pieces of debris that could hit other satellites, setting off a chain reaction that damages important space-based systems.
According to the ESA, now is the time to develop traffic rules and communication protocols to prevent satellite collisions. It might be too late if we wait until SpaceX has 12,000 satellites beaming down broadband.