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Sci Tech    H2'ed 7/30/21

Satellite mega-constellations' mega-threats: The rise of space junk and the fall of reason

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Letter #26 Satellite mega-constellations' mega-threats: The rise of space junk and the fall of reason

Part 2
By Miguel Coma

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Above our heads, man-made satellites wage war against the stars. On Earth, a handful of CEOs plan to put hundreds of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbitin addition to the 5,0001 satellites already launched. Altogether, these satellites will outnumber the stars visible to the naked eye tenfold.

In a previous article, I described mega-constellations of satellites for telecommunications and discussed astronomers' deep concerns about them. I'm a star-gazer myself. Learning about the environmental impacts of this unprecedented space program continues to shock me.

Elon, honey, can you take out the space trash tonight?

Since the 1950s, communication satellites have been used for long-distance voice and data transfer. Most satellites never come back to Earth; at the end of their useful life, they become garbage. Today, millions of objects orbit the Earth. Most of them no longer function: they're space junk.

Moriba Jah2 from Austin University explains that some objects are as tiny as a speck of paint; some are as big as a school bus. Less than one percent of these objects are tracked. Objects smaller than 10 cm (four inches) cannot be tracked. Traveling at several kilometres per second (tens of thousands of kilometers per hour), space debris sometimes collide or explode, creating even more small, untrackable, hazardous objects that can damage useful satellites or inhabited spaceships.

There are no traffic rules in space3. In 2020, the inhabited International Space Station (ISS) nearly had three catastrophic collisions with space debris. Satellite operators do not always share information and their opinions on the location of space debris can differ. In 2019, a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite risked colliding with one of Elon Musk's Starlink satellitesbut the Agency could not reach Starlink's operators. The ESA's satellite had to change orbit, quickly.

When space becomes too crowded with debris, a series of collisions occur. Each collision produces more debris, increasing risk of yet more collisions. Called the Kessler Syndrome4, we can only manage it by actively removing our telecom junk from space.

Producing junk

Nature's1 May 2021 report reveals that each of Elon Musk's satellites operates for only five to six yearsless than a personal computer. Musk swears he'll take out his trash by having dead satellites re-enter the atmosphere and turn into dust. So, beside his 42,000 functioning satellites, expect an additional 4,200 de-orbiting satellites at all times. Expect 8,400 new satellites launched each year to replace the ones that no longer work.

Every day, Starlink alone can produce about six tons of electronic waste that re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. This junk increases the risk of cascading collisions with untracked debris. Indeed, "a major fragmentation event from a single satellite could affect all [satellite] operators in LEO [Low Earth Orbit]".1

Make a wish on a falling satellite!

During satellites' re-entry into the atmosphere, pieces large enough to harm people, wildlife and property can fall. NASA recommends a human casualty risk lower than 1/10,000 per satellite re-entry. However, launching permits do not consider the cumulative or combined risks of launching hundreds of thousands of satellites. Operators do not always respect safety standards1. Scientists find that pieces larger than 10 cm might not fully disintegrate when they fall back to Earth5, and yet SpaceX claims that their next-generation satellites will completely turn into dust. No agency has tested this claim; and no agency can require other satellite operators to turn their debris into dust.

If you watch a falling satellite, make a wish that everyone will stay safe!

Chemicals and ozone depletion

During a satellite launch, rocket fuels (e.g. hydrazine) and rocket parts that contain hazardous substances may fall into the ocean and harm marine life.1

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Katie Singer writes about nature and technology in Letters to Greta. She spoke about the Internet's footprint in 2018, at the United Nations' Forum on Science, Technology & Innovation, and, in 2019, on a panel with the climatologist Dr. (more...)

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