The world is heading for a ‘wild west’ free for all in space that could lead to disaster as firms fight for every scrap of resource in low Earth orbit, an expert has warned.
Paul Kostek, a space policy specialist from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), says global agreement is ‘highly unlikely’ anytime soon.
As the commercial space sector continues to grow at a rapid rate, firms are vying to launch constellations of satellites and new experimental craft into low Earth orbit.
This has left astronomers frustrated and struggling due to ‘blots in the sky’ that make observations harder and less accurate, as well as concerns over space junk.
The need for regulation has become more pressing after satellites from OneWeb and SpaceX Starlink came close to hitting each other last week.
The UK Space Agency says it will push for clearer guidelines for the commercial space industry with the United Nations and at the next G7 summit.
The need for regulation has become more pressing after satellites from OneWeb and SpaceX Starlink came close to hitting each other last week
OneWeb and SpaceX (pictured), the powerhouses in the internet satellite industry, had dangerously close encounter last weekend that was out of this world
WHAT IS SPACE JUNK?
There are an estimated 170 million pieces of so-called ‘space junk’ – left behind after missions that can be as big as spent rocket stages or as small as paint flakes – in orbit alongside some US$700 billion (£555bn) of space infrastructure.
But only 22,000 are tracked, and with the fragments able to travel at speeds above 16,777 mph (27,000kmh), even tiny pieces could seriously damage or destroy satellites.
However, traditional gripping methods don’t work in space, as suction cups do not function in a vacuum and temperatures are too cold for substances like tape and glue.
Grippers based around magnets are useless because most of the debris in orbit around Earth is not magnetic.
Most proposed solutions, including debris harpoons, either require or cause forceful interaction with the debris, which could push those objects in unintended, unpredictable directions.
Scientists point to two events that have badly worsened the problem of space junk.
The first was in February 2009, when an Iridium telecoms satellite and Kosmos-2251, a Russian military satellite, accidentally collided.
The second was in January 2007, when China tested an anti-satellite weapon on an old Fengyun weather satellite.
Experts also pointed to two sites that have become worryingly cluttered.
There are longer-term concerns that this ‘free for all approach’ to space will one day result in a disastrous collision that could lead to a loss of connectivity on Earth or at an extreme case, loss of life if a crewed spacecraft were to be hit.
Kostek warned that this may have to happen before government’s finally agree on a set of regulations to restrict firms operating in the commercial space industry.
The current hot topic in the commercial space sector is the mega constellations, built by firms like OneWeb and SpaceX, but with others including Facebook and Amazon also considering launching their own satellites in future.
‘As a consequence you get into this whole discussion of how is space going to be managed, Kostek told MailOnline, speaking about the vast number of satellites due to launch.
‘It really is the wild wild west, or in this cast the wild wild space,’ he added, saying ‘what is all of that going to mean, how are people even going to manage space.’
‘You’ve got astronomers upset because their night vision is ruined because of the number of satellites up there and the traffic management problem.
‘How do you manage all these satellites to avoid collisions, to protect essential services such as GPS and other communications.’
There is already some evidence of these mammoth constellations of satellites causing problems for each other, not just for astronomers on Earth.
OneWeb and SpaceX, the powerhouses in the internet satellite industry, had dangerously close encounter on April 4, with two satellites from each firm coming within just 190ft of each other as they crossed orbits.
The near miss happened after OneWeb’s recent launch on March 30th, which sent 36 satellites into orbit and had to pass through a sea of Starlinks on the way.
This is the first known collision avoidance event since tech firms started populating space with internet beaming devices – and some may suggest, it will not be the last.
This close encounter of the orbital kind sparked several ‘red alerts’ from the US Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron, as if two satellites do collide it could lead to a dreaded cascade event, causing untold orbital damage.
This is known as Kessler syndrome, proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, who said it could make it impossible for humans to leave the Earth.
The UK Space Agency told MailOnline that increasing levels of commercial activity in space is beneficial to people across the world, but would require tighter regulation.
About 20,000 objects, including satellites and space debris are crowding low-Earth orbit and a collision between objects could generate thousands of small pieces
HOW MANY ITEMS ARE THERE IN ORBIT?
- Rocket launches since 1957: 5450
- Number of satellites in orbit: 8950
- Number still in space: 5000
- Number still functioning: 1950
- Number of debris objects: 22300
- Break-ups, explosions etc: 500
- Mass of objects in orbit: 8400 tonnes
- Prediction of the amount of debris in orbit using statistical models
- Over 10cm: 34 000
- 1cm to 10cm: 900 000
- 1mm to 1cm: 128 million
Source: European Space Agency
A spokesperson said the UK was hoping to broker an international consensus on responsible behaviours in space, working with industry to develop licensing and regulation frameworks to promote safety in orbit.
There are millions of pieces of debris littering space, travelling at hundreds or thousands of miles per hour – each could destroy a satellite, telescope or even a spacecraft on its way to the ISS, the moon or Mars.
Kostek told MailOnline the earliest days of the commercial space industry saw firms act mainly for major space agencies, but that is gradually changing to a sustaining model.
He said there would be mining, research and tourism increasing in low Earth orbit, on the moon and on Mars in the coming decades, driven by commercial firms.
This is the point where debris in low Earth orbit becomes a major risk to human life, said Kostek, who explained more people would be entering orbit than ever before.
‘Now you have this fascinating mix of satellites from major countries, people orbiting on space stations, vehicles, resulting in safety and debris issues.’
To manage this problem global agreements are needed, not just national regulations, but pan-national agreements from all space nations, Kostek explained.
‘There are agreements floating around from the United Nations and others on how the moon and space would be handled, but if you look at them the signatories don’t include people actually doing the work in space,’ he told MailOnline.
‘The moon and probably Mars at some point, there is going to have to be a discussion on Earth from people saying ‘how are we going to manage Mars or the moon’ from a governmental aspect and commercial enterprises.’
The UK Space Agency said they plan to raise the issue with the UN and at the 2021 G7 meeting of nations to look for more sustainability in space.
As the commercial space sector continues to grow at a rapid rate, firms are vying to launch constellations of satellites and new experimental craft into low Earth orbit
THE CLAW: A £100 MILLION ROBOTIC SUICIDE MISSION
The ClearSpace-1 mission will target the Vespa (Vega Secondary Payload Adapter) upper stage.
It was left in a 450 mile altitude orbit after the second flight of ESA’s Vega launcher back in 2013.
With a mass of 220lb, the Vespa is close in size to a small satellite.
The relatively simple shape and sturdy construction make it a suitable first target for the clearspace-1 mission.
Follow up missions will involve larger and more complex objects and even multiple objects.
The ClearSpace-1 ‘chaser’ will be launched into a lower 310 mile orbit.
There it will undergo critical tests before being raised to the target orbit for rendezvous and capture.
It will use a quartet of robotic arms – a pincer or ‘claw’ to catch Vespa.
The £100 million project will end in a glorified robotic’ suicide mission’.
The combined chaser plus Vespa will then be de-orbited to burn up in the atmosphere ‘safely away from life’
The hope is to improve existing sustainability guidelines and develop new ways of reducing the risk of collision in space and removing space debris.
Kostek said there is already precedent in the form of international air routes, where International agreements are in place to aid commercial flight.
‘I think it is going to be wild west first, then everyone will have to stop and ask the question – how is all of this going to work?,’ he said.
Space travel, particularly tourism, is going to get progressively cheaper, much like air travel did, and within 30 years a trip to the moon could be affordable as a ‘once in a lifetime trip’ similar to a safari or world cruise today, Kostek said.
‘The biggest challenge facing space is the wild west. The reality will be that the firs time a vehicle is lost and people are killed, that will be the reality check.
‘Right now we know people going up are ex-military, trained pilots, scientists, engineers who know the risk. The first time an accident with ‘real people’ will be the reality check that forces regulation and tighter controls,’ Kostek told MailOnline.
One solution to the risk of satellite collisions, potentially causing damage to property, connectivity on Earth and even life is to use a wider range of orbits and have regulations that require satellites to de-orbit when they reach their end of life.
De-orbiting a satellite effectively means pushing it into the Earth so that it burns up in the planet’s atmosphere, putting itself out of harms way.
This can be achieved by the satellite itself having enough fuel on board to make its end of life manoeuvre, another is to have satellites designed so they can be removed by another spacecraft – such as an orbital ‘tug ship’.
Chris Mclaughlin, Chief of Government, Regulation & Engagement at OneWeb said all their satellites are designed to both de-orbit and with hooks for safe removal.
‘It has a docking hook on it, which is the standard form to connect the Astroscale, we are confident in our design and that should we have a satellite that requires de-orbiting, the technology will exist to be able to do so,’ he told MailOnline.
Astroscale is a Japanese firm that has an orbital spacecraft that can hook on to a satellite and push it into Earth’s atmosphere, other companies such as the British firm Skyrora and the European Exolaunch are working on similar technologies.
The hope is to improve existing sustainability guidelines and develop new ways of reducing the risk of collision in space and removing space debris
The current generation of OneWeb satellites is between five and seven years and they should have enough fuel for them to burn up in their own right.
Mclaughlin said SpaceX Starlink satellites, most of which orbit about 550km above the Earth, are exempt from having to have de-orbit protocols under Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines.
The guidelines state that satellites in that orbit will re-enter within 25 years anyway and so they don’t have to have de-orbit protocols.
Mclaughlin said this was an example of why international cooperation are needed to create regulations that work between nations to stop firms shopping around.
‘The FCC has accepted that 8.4% of any SpaceX launch will fail, that wouldn’t stand scrutiny from the UK Space Agency, so it is a different approach.
A number of technologies are being proposed to capture satellites no longer in service and move them – including this ‘claw’ approach by ClearSpace supported by ESA
‘If they have 1,200 in the 550km zone and on that basis they would have 100 to 120 non-functioning satellites already, and they are trying to modify their licence to bring all of their satellites – another 3,000 – to launch into the 550km zone.
‘That is coincidentally the same orbital slot the FCC has previously approved Amazon to go to, so you have a US regulator approving up to 8,000 satellites into the same zone as each other without any international agreement.’
The FFC declined to comment when asked whether these rules should be amended to take into account thousands of satellites within that space.
Edward F Jamieson from Satellite manufacturer Nano Avionics, who are working to create modular satellites to make it cheaper for firms to launch into space.
He told MailOnline they support the idea of international regulations that would force satellite firms to clean up after themselves, including de-orbiting protocols and environmentally friendly propulsion systems within satellites.
The current generation of OneWeb satellites is between five and seven years and they should have enough fuel for them to burn up in their own right
The close call was due to OneWeb’s (pictured) recent launch on March 30th, which sent 36 satellites into orbit and had to pass through a sea of Starlinks to hit its targeted orbit
‘This would enable us to de-orbit them, put them in a graveyard orbit or even move them if there is the risk of a collision,’ he said.
‘A cascade is a very very unlikely scenario, and there are lots of measures in place to reduce those risks including real time tracking of objects in space.’
Jamieson said most nations also require registration of any object being put in space so they can be easily tracks, so it is just the unregistered, unlicensed objects that would pose a problem, but most would be listed.
‘We need careful regulation rolled in sensibly through stages that can tell us how to best tackle these problems,’ he told MailOnline.
ELON MUSK’S SPACEX SET TO BRING BROADBAND INTERNET TO THE WORLD WITH ITS STARLINK CONSTELLATION OF SATELLITES
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched the fifth batch of its ‘Starlink’ space internet satellites – taking the total to 300.
They form a constellation of thousands of satellites, designed to provide low-cost broadband internet service from low Earth orbit.
The constellation, informally known as Starlink, and under development at SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond, Washington.
Its goal is to beam superfast internet into your home from space.
While satellite internet has been around for a while, it has suffered from high latency and unreliable connections.
Starlink is different. SpaceX says putting a ‘constellation’ of satellites in low earth orbit would provide high-speed, cable-like internet all over the world.
The billionaire’s company wants to create the global system to help it generate more cash.
Musk has previously said the venture could give three billion people who currently do not have access to the internet a cheap way of getting online.
It could also help fund a future city on Mars.
Helping humanity reach the red planet is one of Musk’s long-stated aims and was what inspired him to start SpaceX.
The company recently filed plans with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 4,425 satellites into orbit above the Earth – three times as many that are currently in operation.
‘Once fully deployed, the SpaceX system will pass over virtually all parts of the Earth’s surface and therefore, in principle, have the ability to provide ubiquitous global service,’ the firm said.
‘Every point on the Earth’s surface will see, at all times, a SpaceX satellite.’
The network will provide internet access to the US and the rest of the world, it added.
It is expected to take more than five years and $9.8 billion (£7.1bn) of investment, although satellite internet has proved an expensive market in the past and analysts expect the final bill will be higher.
Musk compared the project to ‘rebuilding the internet in space’, as it would reduce reliance on the existing network of undersea fibre-optic cables which criss-cross the planet.
In the US, the FCC welcomed the scheme as a way to provide internet connections to more people.