We’re running out of room in space

By World Economic Forum

March 10, 2020

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Satellites promise to better connect us via the internet — even those of us living in places as remote as Antarctica or the outer islands of Tonga.

But as governments and companies gear up to launch waves of additional satellites in the near future, it’s raising troubling questions about the impact on the ability of scientists to effectively monitor the heavens, and even on our view of the night sky.

Elon Musk’s company SpaceX recently launched a second batch of dozens of satellites intended to provide internet service. The company’s first batch of satellites, launched earlier this year, resulted in surprise and dismay when people realised just how bright they were — and some fretted about a loss of visibility for astronomers. SpaceX’s ambitions coincide with the emergence of “Space 2.0,” an era of new technologies including lower-cost, smaller satellites that can be built relatively quickly and launched en masse by either governments or private companies.

Countries with the most satellites in space
Image: Statista

This promises to sharply accelerate our physical presence in space, more than half a century after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik. As of the beginning of this year, some 8,950 satellites had been placed into orbit — and while 5,000 of those were still in space, only about 1,950 were still functioning. In addition, there were about 34,000 bits of debris bigger than 10 centimetres in size orbiting Earth. Now, we’re on the cusp of a potentially significant increase in space clutter. SpaceX, for example, ultimately plans to launch a fleet of satellites equal to about eight times the number currently in orbit.

For more context, here are links to more reading courtesy of the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • The International Astronomical Union, best known for demoting Pluto from planet status, is gearing up to tackle another high-profile issue: Starlink. The SpaceX initiative is intended to provide internet access, but it may threaten the dark and radio-quiet sky essential for these scientists to advance our understanding of the Universe. (Space)
  • The Starlink situation may not be as bad as initially feared, but it could dramatically change the ways astronomers currently do their jobs. The “streaking” problem created by new satellite clusters during summertime could introduce seasonal bias, for example – and a cutting-edge satellite slated to start studying dark matter and asteroids in 2022 might be directly affected. (Nature)
  • It’s not just demand for internet access that’s fueling Space 2.0. Many countries are scrambling for a military edge in space, and their development of “soft kill” systems capable of disabling and damaging the satellites launched by rivals could further add to the graveyard of orbiting debris. (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)
  • In order to better protect their satellites, countries may end up launching even more satellites. France, for one, recently announced plans for “bodyguard” satellites armed with machine guns or lasers. While we likely won’t be able to see the effects of future space combat from Earth’s surface, it would affect our GPS, TV broadcasts and access to cash machines. (The Conversation)
  • Make way for impending hordes of “nanosatellites.” A Danish entrepreneur is producing satellites the size of a shoebox, designed to perform the functions of bigger models but at a fraction of the cost – and to operate just 400 kilometres from Earth. One potential future use: prospecting asteroids for space mining. (London Business School)
  • We probably aren’t even aware of a lot of what is being shot into space at any given time. A recently disclosed, classified US Air Force mission ended in October when the secretive X-37B space plane returned from 780 days in orbit. Details of the mission are sparse, but we know that the plane served as a platform for covert experiments and deployed a few small satellites. (Wired)
  • Ready for “Space 3.0?” While Space 2.0 has challenged the dominance of government-run space activity, this next iteration will involve an “in-space economy” – with millions of people living and working in space, settling Mars and manufacturing the things they need there rather than launching them from Earth. More space junk is certain to follow. (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)
  • It’s not only man-made objects that will soon be showing up in increasing numbers in space. Remember “Oumuama,” the odd-looking slab of unknown origin that was spotted floating into our solar system in 2017? More of these strange, interstellar objects on their way in the near future. (Yale)


This article is curated from the World Economic Forum website.

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