SpaceX’s plans for a “mega constellation” of internet satellites have been thrust into the spotlight, as one craft in the nascent Starlink array forced an existing satellite to fire its thrusters and avoid a crash.
The European Space Agency was forced to perform a collision avoidance maneuver Monday morning to avoid crashing into one of the Starlink crafts, designed by SpaceX to provide fast internet access to people on Earth. The agency claims it is the first time it’s ever needed to avoid a satellite from such a “mega constellation,” and it’s incredibly rare that the agency needs to avoid active satellites. SpaceX initially told the agency it would not take action, but the company later told Inverse that a bug in the paging system prevented the team from seeing the higher probability of collision.
The incident speaks to a broader problem about overcrowding in outer space. While SpaceX’s current constellation only covers 60 crafts launched in May, the company is aiming to eventually reach a staggering 12,000 satellites when fully completed. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is also planning an internet constellation of around 3,236 crafts as part of Project Kuiper. These projects alone will massively increase the number of satellites orbiting Earth, which stood at 4,987 crafts at the start of this year.
Space is about to get a lot more crowded, and agencies will need to plan with that in mind. The answer could lie with artificial intelligence, transforming the space around Earth from a floating free-for-all to a smarter network of satellites quietly planning their own routes.
“There are no rules in space,” Holger Krag, head of the Space Debris Office at ESA, told Forbes after the Monday incident. “Nobody did anything wrong. Space is there for everybody to use. There’s no rule that somebody was first here. Basically on every orbit you can encounter other objects. Space is not organized. And so we believe we need technology to manage this traffic.”
Future satellites, the agency explained on its Twitter, would be able to work with A.I. systems to detect collissions, make an assessment and fire the thrusters. The agency stated that these systems “are becoming necessary to protect our space infrastructure.”
SpaceX and the ESA: The Monday Incident
The SpaceX incident concerned the agency’s Aeolus satellite. This 2,866-pound satellite was sent into space on August 22, 2018. The craft is designed to measure wind patterns on a global scale, predicting the climate and understanding future patterns. Aeolus orbited around 320 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.
Starlink sent up its first 60 satellites (bar two previous test prototypes) on May 23, 2019. Each one weighs around 500 pounds. These had their orbiting range raised from 440 kilometers to 550 kilometers, but number 44 lowered to around 320 kilometers as part of a test for deorbiting.
The ESA was alerted to the potential colission by the American military. Although the chance of crashing was one in 1,000, that figure was around 10 times higher than the agency’s threshold. The agency informed SpaceX, which replied by telling the agency that it would not be taking action. Krag suggested to Forbes that this was because Starlink used an electric propulsion system that might not react as fast as Aeolus’ chemical-based system.
Around half an orbit before the expected crash, Aeolus fired the thrusters. After avoiding the craft, it returned back to its original orbit.
A SpaceX spokesperson tells Inverse the problem stemmed from a bug in the paging system:
Our Starlink team last exchanged an email with the Aeolus operations team on August 28, when the probability of collision was only in the 2.2e-5 range (or 1 in 50k), well below the 1e-4 (or 1 in 10k) industry standard threshold and 75 times lower than the final estimate. At that point, both SpaceX and ESA determined a maneuver was not necessary. Then, the U.S. Air Force’s updates showed the probability increased to 1.69e-3 (or more than 1 in 10k) but a bug in our on-call paging system prevented the Starlink operator from seeing the follow on correspondence on this probability increase – SpaceX is still investigating the issue and will implement corrective actions. However, had the Starlink operator seen the correspondence, we would have coordinated with ESA to determine best approach with their continuing with their maneuver or our performing a maneuver.
It’s not the first time Starlink has sparked concern from the international community. Astronomers sounded the alarm in June after the satellites were seen shining brightly in the sky and potentially disrupting research.
SpaceX and the ESA: Space Is About to Get More Crowded
Avoiding a collision like this takes a lot of work. The agency needs to understand how a move could lead to different results, understanding the movements of other satellites and acting accordingly. The ESA has a special space debris office to answer these questions:
Last year, the agency completed 28 such maneuvers. There’s an estimated 900,000 objects in orbit larger than one centimeter. Satellite operators spend an estimated €14 million ($15.33 million) on debris avoidance maneuvers, even though 99 percent of alerts are false.
In the future, this could all be automated. A ministerial council held in November is expected to tackle the question of automating the process and more, as part of a decision about the agency’s future.
“We see it as part of our changing environment,” Stijn Lemmens, a space debris analyst at ESA, told Forbes. “We want to raise awareness in this sense, that there’s quite a bit of work that needs to be done on how to make sure that these type of operations will run smoothly in the future.”
As for SpaceX, the firm claimed in its May launch press materials that the satellites “are capable of tracking on-orbit debris and autonomously avoiding collision.”
With SpaceX planning four more Starlink launches for this year, each one expected to launch another 60 crafts, space is about to get a whole lot more crowded.