Starlink Failures Highlight Space Sustainability Concerns

Space.com | 7/3/2019 | Jeff Foust
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WASHINGTON — The failure of at least five percent of the first batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites has put a spotlight on the growing concerns that satellite megaconstellations could litter low Earth orbit with hundreds of dead satellites.

SpaceX said in a June 28 statement that three of the 60 Starlink satellites the company launched May 23 are no longer responding to commands from the ground and appear to be dead. The company said those satellites will deorbit naturally, burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Addition - Satellites - Others - Orbits - Altitude

In addition to the three failed satellites, five others are still raising their orbits to their planned altitude of 550 kilometers, while five others are still undergoing tests in their initial, lower orbits. It wasn't clear when, or if, those satellites would reach their operational orbit.

SpaceX had stressed prior to the launch that these satellites were, in effect, experimental, and had a higher risk of on-orbit failures as the company demonstrates their key technologies. Launching them into lower orbits ensures they should deorbit in a matter of a few years.

Secure - World - Foundation - Summit - Space

At the Secure World Foundation's Summit for Space Sustainability here last week, government and industry officials said they were concerned that proposed megaconstellations of thousands of satellites could, with similar failure rates, leave hundreds of dead satellites in low Earth orbit, a particular concern at some of the higher altitudes proposed for those systems where it can take centuries for satellites to naturally deorbit.

Matt Desch, chief executive of Iridium, dubbed dead satellites "rocks" during an on-stage interview at the conference June 26. "What if you launch 1,000 satellites, 5,000 satellites, 12,000 satellites?" he asked. "Say, 10 percent create rocks. We are creating an environment that may make LEO an environment that isn't sustainable."

Desch - Company - Experience - Company - Reliability

Desch speaks from his own company's experience. The company has emphasized reliability — it's noted all...
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