The most nightmarish calamity, however unlikely, wouldn’t just impact their businesses. It could set back all of human civilization.
A piece of that debris slams into another satellite, and it sets off a chain reaction that obliterates everything orbiting in nearby altitudes.
The odds of disaster
Such a scenario remains highly, highly unlikely. Space is huge and satellites are still far from “crowded” up there.
But the price of space travel is plummeting, meaning loads of new satellites are going up each year, while the risk of collisions climbs exponentially higher, explains Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“If you put up 10 times the [current total] number of satellites, the risk isn’t just ten times as big — it’s 100 times bigger,” McDowell told CNN Business, describing the risk of a collision. While a single crash might not lead to a doomsday scenario, any incident can create problems.
Experts frequently liken the space debris issue to pollution and climate change: A devastating series of collisions may seem far-fetched until, suddenly, it’s a looming catastrophe.
“We’ve got to figure out how to get a handle on this,” Kelso said. “The community needs to understand that it’s not about probability — it’s risk. It’s the consequences.”
It’s the result of a half-century of space travel and few regulations to keep space clean.
SpaceX, Starlink and the patrons of space
Musk, for his part, says SpaceX takes the problem very seriously: “We are taking great pains to make sure there’s not an orbital debris issue,” he told reporters during a recent conference call.
Each active Starlink satellite will be able to automatically dodge traceable pieces of debris headed their way, Musk said.
The satellites will also save enough fuel at the end of their lives so that they can intentionally plunge back toward Earth to get out of the way of new devices, SpaceX says. Even if a satellite unexpectedly dies, it’ll be in such a low altitude that gravity will naturally pull it out of orbit in one-to-five years, according to the company.
The first 60 Starlink satellites have now been in orbit about a week, and everything seems to be going smoothly. No malfunctioning satellites or failed propulsion systems have been reported.
Still, nothing is foolproof.
“If there’s some subtle failure that only kicks in two years after launch … you could end up with a thousand dead satellites in the operational orbit,” said McDowell, the astronomer.
In other words, if all 60 of the satellites SpaceX just launched turn out to have some kind of design flaw that only becomes apparent somewhere down the line, and they all die in orbit, it could spell big trouble.
SpaceX is a well-respected company that has proven its technological chops time and time again, McDowell added. But the company took on a lot of risk launching this large batch of satellites, with an untested design, at the same time.
For now, companies and organizations mostly have to take it upon themselves to research and invest in being good patrons of space.
“It’s like any kind of environmental stewardship,” Kelso said. There isn’t always a business incentive to do the right thing, but “you don’t want to reach the point where you’re saying, ‘Gee, I wish we did this earlier.'”