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Space is getting too crowded, Rocket Lab CEO warns

Last week, the CEO of Rocket Lab, a launch startup, said the company is already beginning to experience the effect of increasing congestion in space.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said the huge number of objects in space right now – a number that is growing rapidly thanks in part to SpaceX’s satellite internet constellation, Starlink – is making it harder to find a clear path. for rockets to launch new satellites.

“This has a huge impact on the launch side,” he told CNN Business. The rockets “must try to make their way between them [satellite] constellations. “

Part of the problem is that outer space remains largely unregulated. The latest widely agreed international treaty has not been updated in five decades, and this has mostly left the commercial space industry to the police themselves.

Rocket Lab set out to create lightweight rockets ̵

1; much smaller than SpaceX’s 230-foot-tall Falcon rockets – capable of delivering batches of small satellites into space on a monthly or even weekly basis. Since 2018, Rocket Lab has launched 12 successful missions and a total of 55 satellites in space for a variety of research and commercial purposes. Beck said in-orbit traffic problems have taken a bad turn in the past 12 months.

It was around that time that SpaceX quickly built its Starlink constellation, expanding it to include more than 700 internet-broadcasting satellites. It is already by far the largest constellation of satellites and the company plans to grow it to include between 12,000 and 40,000 total satellites. This is five times the total number of satellites humans have launched since the dawn of space flight in the late 1950s.

It is unclear whether traffic from their own satellites has caused SpaceX frustration as well. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Orbital junkyard

Researchers have warned for decades that congestion in outer space could have devastating consequences. Kessler’s warning said that if space traffic becomes too dense, a single collision between two objects could trigger a disastrous chain reaction that transforms the space around the Earth in an extraterrestrial wasteland. A piece of debris would hit a satellite and that impact – much like a car crash, except at orbital speeds greater than 17,000 mph – could generate hundreds, if not thousands, of new fragments by itself. Those new pieces could hit other objects in orbit, which would hit other objects, and so on, until low earth orbit would be saturated with an increasing amount of uncontrollable projectiles.

And each of them could knock out a satellite, a launch rocket, or even an orbiting space station with humans inside.

Kessler’s syndrome was at the center of the 2013 “Gravity” storyline, in which shards of satellites caused a cascade of disastrous satellite collisions.
The question is whether it will remain a fiction. Some experts warn that areas of low Earth orbit have already reached a critical mass of congestion.

SpaceX said he is determined to be an administrator in charge of outer space. The company claims to have equipped its Starlink satellites with the ability to automatically maneuver away from other objects in orbit.

The SpaceX constellation also orbits at lower altitudes than more crowded areas, which NASA and international partners estimate to be around 400-650 miles high. This is an ideal area for observation satellites that monitor the environment and is also home to swarms of debris.
But Moriba Jah, an astrodynamicist at the University of Texas at Austin and a foremost expert in space traffic, said most of Earth’s orbit below roughly 750 miles is becoming a danger zone.
Jah has created a database to track potential collisions in space, and an online graph uses dots to show how many objects should pass within six miles of each other every 20 minutes. Over the past year, the stitches have gotten too dense to count.

Jah hopes more satellite operators and missile companies, including SpaceX and Rocket Lab, will share real-time location data for their rockets and satellites to make predictions more accurate.

Neither company has done so.

While there have been no collisions this year, Jah warns, it could only be a matter of time.

NASA administrator warns that the ISS space junk problem is getting worse after 3 near collisions
While SpaceX manages to keep its area clean in space, there is a line of other companies waiting to build their own giant constellations. Amazon and UK-based OneWeb are planning to build their telecommunications initiatives using hundreds of their own satellites as well. Added to the problem are swarms of junk whizzing through space, including parts of deceased rockets, dead satellites and debris from previous collisions and anti-satellite tests.

That junk is virtually impossible to clean up on a large scale. And it will take years, if not centuries, for it to naturally fall out of orbit.

The odds of avoiding disaster only decrease with each new satellite launch, Jah added. Remain optimistic that we can avoid Kessler syndrome, even with swarms of satellites in orbit, but only if SpaceX and Amazons of the world agree to abide by certain rules and norms of behavior.

“Absent that the answer is no,” he said.

Beck, the CEO of Rocket Lab, said he was frustrated that much of the conversation about space junk revolves around the risk of collisions in orbit and there isn’t much conversation about how space traffic is already affecting launch activities. Satellite constellations can be particularly problematic, he said, because the satellites can fly quite close together, forming a kind of block that can prevent rockets from penetrating.

In the early days of Rocket Lab, Beck said, the company could choose a 30-minute time frame on any given day and expect to safely reach orbit.

Lately, the company has had to choose “half a dozen separate launch windows because we have to shoot through a train of satellites,” Beck said.

Space junk poses terrifying threats. Here's what it means for SpaceX's megaconstellation
However, Beck said he is not against SpaceX’s plans or the huge constellations of satellites in general. Starlink, once operational, could provide huge benefits to life on Earth by making Internet access available to billions of people who still don’t have enough connectivity, he noted.

But Beck said he was concerned about how quickly he saw the traffic in space affect his business. And he’s worried that new players in the space industry may be reckless.

“It’s just a race to orbit, and there’s no consideration for what environment we’re going to leave behind,” he said. “Anyone who drives a launch vehicle now needs to be truly aware of their responsibilities.”

Outer space surveillance

Rocket Lab recently launched its own internal investigation into the traffic problem, hoping to determine how problematic it can be for the company with the growth of satellite constellations.

But for now, Beck said, Rocket Lab would benefit from more precise tracking of objects in space. The US military acts as the de facto policeman of world traffic because it manages a large database of active satellites and space junk, but the military no longer wants that task.

Managing traffic in space is difficult and dangerous. Here's how we could improve it

NASA and military officials are lobbying for the U.S. government to transfer traffic management duties to the Department of Commerce, which could work to establish a more comprehensive and collaborative monitoring and management system internationally.

NASA chief Jim Bridenstine urged senators in a hearing last week to fund this effort, noting that the International Space Station also had to dodge orbital debris. three times so far this year, an unprecedented rate.

“We are providing the world with global space situational awareness and space traffic management free of charge,” Bridenstine said during the hearing. “We have to take that data, combine it with commercial and international data to create a single integrated spatial image that can be shared with the world. And, by the way, the world must support us in this effort.”

Congress last year chose to commission a study on the issue rather than give the green light to reform.

Beck is also troubled that global regulation of space traffic has lagged far behind technology.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which remains the leading international document regulating activity in space, was passed at a time when only two governments were going into space. Now that more countries and commercial companies are also in the space flight business, regulators face a Catch-22: they don’t want to create a lawless environment, but are reluctant to impose new rules for fear that other countries may become more dominant. in the space.

Recent attempts to update the rules on the international stage have been “incredibly inspiring, but also incredibly depressing,” Beck said. Because even if countries were willing to come to the table, nothing has actually been agreed since the 1970s.

“We are very pro-democratizing space,” Beck said. “But it has to be done in a way that is responsible for each generation.”

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