NASA Raises Concerns About Starlink Expansion Plans
SpaceX might have lost a few satellites recently, but there are plenty more where those came from. Musk’s aerospace firm currently operates more than 2,000 satellites in its Starlink constellation, and it has approval for thousands more. SpaceX hopes to get approval for 30,000 more satellites, but NASA, which has been supportive of Starlink in the past, is now raising concerns about the negative impact on astronomy and space exploration. The Federal Communications Commission hasn’t made any decisions yet, but this doesn’t bode well for Musk and co.
We’re becoming a bit desensitized to SpaceX launches and the rapid expansion of Starlink, but the company’s burgeoning satellite network presents a huge challenge to our previous methods of sharing orbits. Already, SpaceX is the largest single satellite operator globally, and that’s largely thanks to the Falcon 9 rocket. This vehicle has a reusable first stage, making launches much cheaper than competing systems. That has allowed SpaceX to bulk up Starlink with up to 60 new nodes with each launch.
According to NASA’s letter to the FCC, it currently tracks about 25,000 objects in Earth orbit, and SpaceX wants 30,000 more of its own satellites in orbit. That is in addition to the 12,000 already approved. NASA is worried about the possibility these large constellations could increase the likelihood of collisions with both crewed and uncrewed assets in orbit. After all, SpaceX is asking to more than double the number of tracked objects in orbit.
There have already been some near misses up there, so industry and space agencies have tried to devise systems to prevent that. However, adding thousands more satellites to orbit could make that difficult. NASA suggests that SpaceX and other firms hoping to get into the mega-constellation business develop autonomous maneuvering systems that can adjust course to avoid collisions. But NASA warns even this might not be enough if we have multiple large swarms of internet nodes trying to avoid colliding with each other and NASA’s hardware.
NASA raises concerns about the SpaceX plan for Starlink Gen2 in letter to the FCC:
—near miss/collisions with science and crewed missions
—maneuvering capability failure
—interference with space and ground-based telescopes
—launch schedule delays pic.twitter.com/J2X08uyj2t
— Michael Sheetz (@thesheetztweetz) February 9, 2022
Even barring any actual collisions, NASA worries that Starlink Gen 2 could cause too much orbital congestion. The company plans 20,000 satellites in the 328-360km range, which is a crucial region for spacecraft to maneuver on their way to the ISS. This could cause delays, and even missed launch windows for missions like the Europa Clipper, which, funny enough, is being launched on a SpaceX rocket.
NASA also points out that even the existing constellation is a headache for astronomers. These orbiting machines are bright enough to appear in telescopes around the world. Already, eight percent of Hubble images have a satellite streak, and adding thousands more will only worsen the issue. NASA estimates that Starlink Gen 2 would ensure there is at least one errant streak in every survey image intended to spot dangerous asteroids.
NASA isn’t strictly opposing Starlink Gen 2, but it does want more information before the FCC grants the license. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who is usually very chatty on Twitter, hasn’t had anything to say about the letter.
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