Last March I wrote about Starlink, SpaceX’s next-generation satellite network.
CEO Elon Musk, who also heads electric-car maker Tesla TSLA, +1.59%, expects Starlink to be capable of connecting the globe and offering reliable and affordable broadband internet service via thousands of low-orbit satellites working in combination with ground transceivers.
On Jan. 7, SpaceX launched 60 satellites from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, bringing the total to 240. Ultimately the number of Starlink satellites is expected to increase to 12,000 by the mid-2020s, as the plan is to launch one batch every two weeks.
After deployment, over the course of one to four months, these newly launched satellites will use their onboard thrusters to climb from an altitude of 180 miles to 340 miles.
During this phase of flight, the satellites will be closely clustered, with their solar arrays in a low-drag configuration, which will make them more visible from the ground. They will be monitored for malfunctions, and those not performing up to specifications will remain in 180-mile-high orbit, from which they will eventually fall through the atmosphere and burn up.
Even though the operation is moving ahead smoothly, there are significant problems that need to be resolved.
Critics are focusing on two main ones.
First, there’s the space junk problem. The first batch of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites had at least 5% “dead” or unresponsive units that were expected by the company to deorbit naturally and burn up in the atmosphere. Once thousands of these satellites rise to a higher orbit, it’s reasonable to assume that a number of them will malfunction. At that point, the descent will take significantly longer (five years at 340 miles altitude and even longer at higher altitudes), and until they come down, they will be a threat to other satellites and space installations.
Even though SpaceX says the satellites have an automated collision-avoidance system, there’s a high chance it won’t function at all in a number of “dead” satellites, turning them into passive pieces of debris capable of knocking out other satellites and endangering space station crew members.
Once SpaceX launches thousands of satellites, hundreds of faulty ones have the potential to get caught up in cascading satellite collisions, wreaking havoc on global communication and navigation.
Second, there’s the potential for Starlink satellites to obstruct observational astronomy. Since they shine brightly in the night sky, reflecting light to various lenses and cameras, they could make ground-based astronomy impossible once tens of thousands of them are launched.
SpaceX is already working on this with an experimental darkening treatment that will be applied to one test satellite to see if the glare of its body can be reduced. If successful, the coating will be applied to upcoming satellite batches as well. SpaceX will also provide leading astronomy groups with data on satellite positions, so astronomers can better coordinate their observations.
These problems are far from easy to solve and should be addressed sooner rather than later. Other companies, including as Amazon.com AMZN, +1.36%, OneWeb and TeleSat, plan to launch their own satellites. In the next few years, the number of satellites orbiting Earth could reach 46,000 — that’s more than five times the number of objects that were sent to space in the past 60 years.
As long as they burn out in the atmosphere when they malfunction, steer clear from collisions with other space objects and don’t obstruct astronomical observations, they are a welcome addition to making a global online community even more inclusive.
Do you agree? Please let me know in the comment section below.
Jurica Dujmovic is a MarketWatch columnist.