Sep 10, 2019 - Science

The coming cost of moving satellites

A reticle focusing on a spacecraft and a satellite.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With thousands of small satellites expected to launch to orbit in the coming years, the risks of collisions will likely increase and a fight could break out over who should bear the cost of managing greater space traffic.

Why it matters: Some experts say the burden of moving satellites out of harm's way could increasingly fall on the operators of larger spacecraft, not those managing mega-constellations of internet-beaming small satellites. That could raise the cost of operating weather, Earth imaging or other types of satellites in lower orbits by forcing larger spacecraft to expend precious fuel more often.

Details: The operators of these future mega-constellations — like SpaceX or Amazon — may have a higher tolerance for risk than those managing just a handful of expensive spacecraft, experts say.

  • "If they [mega-constellation operators] lose one of their satellites, no biggie. They have 10,000 more," Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation told Axios in an interview.
  • But there isn't that kind of redundancy for larger spacecraft.

Driving the news: The European Space Agency (ESA) just shifted one of its satellites to avoid a possible collision with a SpaceX's Starlink satellite.

  • According to SpaceX, a computer error prevented the company from seeing that odds of a collision were relatively high, but the breakdown in communication is a good example of problems that could crop up in the future.
  • "Today, this negotiation is done through exchanging emails — an archaic process that is no longer viable as increasing numbers of satellites in space mean more space traffic," Holger Krag, the head of space safety at ESA, said in a statement.

State of play: Current means of tracking satellites by the U.S. Air Force and others have worked well until now, but experts say there's an urgent need for better monitoring and communication around what's in orbit.

  • "We don't even agree on where stuff is," Moriba Jah, an aerospace engineer and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told Axios.
  • The Air Force's models simplify the trajectory of satellites, which means operators could make an unnecessary or incorrect maneuver that puts them in more harm, says Jah.

Yes, but: Better tracking is only half of the battle. Establishing a global, accurate space traffic management system with established rules of the road is also necessary, according to some experts.

  • OneWeb, a company hoping to launch hundreds of satellites in the coming years to provide global internet, is advocating a design-based approach to reducing space junk.
  • SpaceX's Starlink satellites have the ability to perform collision avoidance maneuvers autonomously, acting on data from the Air Force's tracking system, without input from operators on the ground.

What to watch: The Trump administration, through its Space Policy Directive-3, hopes to put the Commerce Department in charge of many space traffic management duties.

Go deeper: Satellite startup snags funding for "cell towers in space"

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