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 ̵
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”