The dangers that space “traffic” represents for Earth

Dangers that space traffic represents for Earth

In February 2009, some 800 kilometers above Siberia, disaster was looming. The Russian satellite Cosmos-2251 was on a collision course with a communications satellite operated by the American company Iridium. This was the result of the increasing space traffic that represents a threat to Earth. The two objects, whose orbital paths formed a gigantic X on the planet, were getting closer to colliding.

By the violent clash, the satellites were shattered into thousands of fragments. The two objects were traveling at a relative speed of more than 35,000 kilometers per hour.

This incident, which went largely unnoticed, left a lasting legacy. Debris from the Cosmos-Iridium crash has posed collision risks for other satellites ever since. For decades, countries and companies have launched satellites, left them in orbit long after they are out of use, and left behind spent rockets and fragments from other past crashes.

In low-Earth orbit, where satellites are closest to Earth, the accumulation of space debris poses a collision risk, and thousands of active satellites must avoid both debris and other satellites, reveals an article in Coda Story written by Sarah Scholes.

The situation will worsen with increasing space activity. Recently, an Indian and a Russian spacecraft attempted to land on the Moon, heralding a new space race and the possibility of generating more space junk.

Space collisions will increase as active satellite and spacecraft traffic intensifies. The outlook in space is increasingly problematic, as the number of active satellites in Earth orbit has increased significantly from 1,000 in 2009 to nearly 7,000 today.

The risks of collision of satellites in space would generate chaos on the planet. For example, if a disaster occurs with GPS satellites, there would be no navigation systems and aircraft, drones and even some weapons such as missiles would be disoriented. It would also create chaos for the thousands of ocean liners that use it to navigate more efficiently. Also, a GPS crash would collapse other industries that are essential.

All this without counting what could happen if the communication satellites stopped working, which would cause chaos in air and maritime traffic, and would also affect military activities or conflict zones where people are isolated. In addition, key weather forecast data would be lost, making it difficult to warn about natural phenomena such as hurricanes. It would also make it more difficult to collect information for the fight against climate change, or for other activities such as agriculture, mining or illegal fishing.

After the collision of the Russian and American satellites, the United States began a campaign so that events like this do not happen again, this included cooperation with foreign governments. At the moment, there is only a framework of regulations in the field of “space traffic management”.

SpaceX, known for its Starlink satellite network, has so far avoided any serious collisions thanks to its ability to maneuver its satellites away from potential danger. However, it has been involved in numerous close approach alerts, known as “conjunction alerts.”

Currently, with 4,000 satellites in operation, SpaceX’s ambitions are far from being fulfilled. The initial plan includes deploying 12,000 satellites, with a possible final constellation of 42,000. These satellites provide essential internet and communication services, especially in remote regions and conflict zones, albeit intermittently.

As SpaceX launches more of its Starlink satellites, it is facing a challenging scenario. Estimates suggest that once the initial suite is fully rolled out, the company could be implicated in up to 90% of all collision warnings.

The dilemma lies in expanding satellite infrastructure to improve terrestrial connections while putting those very connections at risk. To mitigate this risk, it may be necessary to establish international coordination and regulatory frameworks to ensure that satellite constellations coexist harmoniously without jeopardizing vital services.

In October 2022, the International Space Station (ISS) was forced to take evasive action to dodge a fragment of space debris from a Russian satellite that was destroyed by a widely condemned anti-satellite missile test in 2021.

In November 2021, astronauts aboard the ISS were forced to take refuge in their transport spacecraft when the space station passed uncomfortably close to disused materials. In addition, the ISS had to fire its thrusters to maneuver out of the way of an Earth-imaging satellite.

Faced with this situation, a group of scientists has called for a  legally binding treaty to ensure that the Earth’s orbit is not irreparably damaged by the future expansion of the global space industry.

In an article published in the journal Science, an international group of experts on satellite technology and plastic pollution in the oceans say this demonstrates the urgent need for a global consensus on the best way to govern Earth’s orbit.

This occurred in the same week that nearly 200 countries agreed to a treaty to protect the High Seas, after a process that took 20 years. Experts believe that society should take advantage of the lessons learned from this treaty that involves the oceans, to another that protects space.

The situation is so pressing that estimates of the growth of the aerospace industry are exponential.  The number of satellites in orbit is projected to rise from 7,000 today to more than 60,000 by 2030, and estimates suggest there are already more than 100 trillion fragments of old untracked satellites circling the planet, scientists warn in an article published yesterday in Science magazine.