Table of Contents
Risk for manned missions
Space debris and collision risk
Impact on European missions
Where do we come from?
SpaceX is in the midst of developing and deploying the largest satellite constellation humanity has ever known: Starlink.
On September 17, 2022, at 01:05 GMT, SpaceX launched the 61st batch of 54 satellites, increasing the total number of satellites in orbit to 3261. But this amount is still less than ten percent of the planned total.
This represents a series of obvious and not so obvious risks. In this article I will try to expose those that from my point of view could be the most relevant.
Risk for manned missions
We all have in our minds the image of the Columbia re-entry in February 2003, which ended in tragedy and the discontinuation of the Shuttle space program. The six-month investigation identified a small impact at takeoff as the source of the problem. Making the Shuttle vulnerable as the crew returned from their mission.
It does not take an expert in space systems to realize that enveloping the planet with 40,000 300 kg objects at an altitude of about 300 km and moving at 10 km/sec limits the options for launching rockets with manned space missions. That is, those that transport astronauts.
NASA has already warned of this situation in a formal letter sent to the American agency that authorized Elon Musk’s project, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Launching a mission for planetary exploration requires complex maneuvers that can only be performed under certain conditions. Literally, the stars have to align. But for this, complex launch “windows”, or time intervals in which the necessary conditions exist, must be determined and selected. These windows may occur every two years (26 months to be more precise) in the case of Mars missions.
But there is no need to go all the way to Mars, or the Moon. Without going any further, the International Space Station (ISS) orbits at a slightly higher altitude. This means that astronauts will have to traverse the Starlink sphere to get to and from their missions. In the same way, if the launching “windows” were already scarce, now things are even more complicated.
Imagine if we add to this the new Starlink “sphere”, with a number of objects 10 times the number of satellites currently in orbit, but all concentrated in a thin layer at relatively low altitude. Because yes, in spatial terms 330 km is one of the lowest. Taking into account that space, as it is formally defined, starts at 100 km from the earth’s surface. This is what is known as the Kármán border. Although this definition is not recognized by all countries for military reasons, it is widely accepted by the international community.
A simple calculation leads to the conclusion that the launchers will have to manage to pass through “windows” of an area equivalent to that of Northern Ireland (~14,000 km2), dodging objects moving at the speed of a projectile.
But we cannot forget that this is in addition to the existing ones. But the real problem arises when we ask ourselves what would happen if other countries decide to follow suit. Didn’t the same thing happen with the GPS system? Why would China, Russia or India decide not to do the same? There is no doubt that it offers obvious advantages in a situation of military conflict. Moreover, why not directly threaten to provoke a cascading collision? What would a country like North Korea, which has no relevant space program, have to lose? It could always argue that the Starlink sphere is so dense that it could not avoid the catastrophe and unintentionally collided with one of its units causing the dreaded disaster and subsequent chaos.
Space debris and collision risk
The Kessler effect, or cascading collision, is a well-known (and feared) effect that predicts the devastating consequences that a collision could cause by triggering new collisions, generating a cascading collision that would grow exponentially and become impossible to control. The risk of such an event, and the consequences for the entire space sector, has been mitigated for years with specific programs for detection and avoidance of space debris, in addition to specific legislation that requires all satellite manufacturers to reserve enough fuel to maneuver at the end of their useful life to graveyard orbits or re-entry into the atmosphere for their final destruction due to the effect of high-speed friction with the gases of the atmosphere.
ESA built-solar cells retrieved from the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002 (courtesy of ESA).
SpaceX argues in its favor that these systems have an intelligent system on board to avoid collisions and that they communicate with each other. But a satellite is not a Tesla, nor is Space a highway. There are elements that are difficult to control and whose impact can be unpredictable. Proof of this is what happened in February 2022, when 40 satellites were affected by a solar geothermal storm and plunged to Earth.
Fortunately, the atmosphere is always there to offer some protection, but we do not know for how long, because some scientists are beginning to question whether satellite re-entries could generate a hole, as happened with the famous Ozone Depletion problem in the atmosphere.
Impact on European missions
One of the big losers in this whole story is astronomical observation, not only in ground-based observatories but for missions as important as the Hubble Telescope, which is located at an altitude of 540 km, the same altitude as the Starlink satellites deployed during the first phase. The risk to this mission (and to astronomical observation in general) has been such that SpaceX has decided to redesign the second generation and reduce its altitude to 330 km.
But this, far from solving the problem, creates new ones. Europe has world-leading projects, with high value in areas such as meteorology or climate change monitoring that will be seriously affected by the Starlink constellation. Specifically, the Aeolus mission (and its evolution to EPS-Aeolus) is located in an orbit (320 km) with altitude dangerously close to the second-phase Starlink (330 km). Considering that objects orbiting at these altitudes travel at around 10km/s, Aeolus would be only a second away under a sea of Starlink satellites. Proof of this was the collision avoidance maneuver that Aeolus had to make on September 2, 2019, one year after its launch into orbit.
We cannot ignore one thing. Collision avoidance maneuvers are expensive. Not only because of the risk of losing a mission, but also because of the cost in hours of operations and engineering personnel. Also, when maneuvering, fuel is used which can significantly reduce the life of the satellite. Not to mention that during the time these maneuvers last, scientific observations and data, the main objective of a mission sent into space, are lost.
But what will happen when a launch has to be aborted by a space agency other than the American one, for example the European one, due to an unforeseen event with Starlink?Who will we have to call, who is supposed to be the valid interlocutor, which two parties will have to agree on the protocol to follow, will it be the American Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that we will have to “implore” to let us peek into space?
There is no doubt that Starlink offers the possibility of low-latency broadband Internet access in areas of the planet where it would never have been possible before. But does this benefit outweigh the risks it introduces? Are there no alternatives with a better risk/benefit ratio? Some of the risks have already been discussed in this article, but what are the main benefits?
Benefits can be classified as follows,
- Global coverage: this is a benefit for all, which does not mean that everyone can benefit from it. We must not forget that SpaceX does not offer a free service. In many cases, this cost will not be borne by 99% of the users in the areas to be covered. But then, what is really the business case?
- Improved speed and latency: here Starlink represents an improvement over other satellite internet options. Going from 600 ms to 50 ms of latency with respect to services offered in geostationary orbits (GEO, 36000 km away) and speeds between 100 and 130 Mbps, which is more than what many countries of the so-called first world offer today in telecommunications infrastructures. However, this is only attractive to a few private (and privileged) users who can afford it. Yacht owners, second homes in the mountains, if you live on a desert island, etc… Because the rest of the mortals who are unlucky enough to live in cities in the developing world will not have access to this technology, just as they never had access to the mobile satellite telephony provided by the Iridium constellation.
- Strategic advantages: this is where the real real
. The owner of this parallel, private internet network outside the control of any government (other than the United States of America, of course) offers a strategic value similar to that which could once be offered by the American global positioning system on which we all depended for decades until those geopolitical powers that aspired to have a say on the international scene (Europe, Russia, China, etc…) developed their own systems. It seems that we are headed for something similar in this case as well. When a country acquires a competitive advantage in the military field, it has to catch up or accept being an international pariah.
Psychologists know very well that there is a cognitive bias that induces us to think that it is better to reduce a small risk to zero, rather than significantly reduce a large risk. This is called Zero Risk Trend. If we stop to think about it, this is one of the main arguments used by Mr. Musk to convince us that he is doing something for humanity while colonizing space. Something for which we would have to thank him, even thank you!
After the start of the war in Ukraine, the US government has been promoting and funding the use of Starlink as an alternative to the terrestrial fixed network targeted by Russian troops. This has undoubtedly helped Ukraine not only internally but also to avoid being isolated from the outside world, as evidenced by the Ukrainian president’s appearances in different chambers of government of countries around the world.
Where do we come from?
For the layman, there is an international treaty that defines the principles governing outer space. That is, starting from the Kármán border (100 km). It is the famous Outer Space Treaty .
Article IX of this treaty, signed by all the countries that make up the United Nations, clearly states that nations must carry out activities that avoid damaging or adversely affecting the space activities of other countries. Article VI makes states responsible for the activities that non-governmental entities acting under their jurisdiction may carry out in the field of space activities, requiring express authorization and continuous supervision.
There are precedents of American projects that in their day were also the object of complaints from third countries and had to be aborted, such as the Project West FordThe first of these, in 1963, launched millions of copper dipoles into space in an attempt to create an ionosphere in order to, once again, communicate by a radio link between the east and west coasts.
The United States is in a way paving the way for its private sector to take the lead in the space sector. And proof of this was the famous Public Law 114-90  that the Obama administration managed to push through at the end of 2015, and which was interpreted as a break with the widespread idea that Space belongs to everyone and should be exploited in the general interest of humanity.
We do not know what will happen from now on and whether the worst omens will come true. Nor do we know if this will create a precedent for other powers to make space an unsustainable dumping ground with unpredictable effects on the atmosphere.
But let us not be blinded by the dazzling brilliance of a visionary’s megalomaniacal delusions, nor let us be fooled by pseudo altruisms that are nothing more than smokescreens generated by twitter. Let’s be brave and claim that Space belongs to everyone, and for everyone.