Tens of thousands of small satellites can be in orbit

Tens of thousands of small satellites can be in orbit

On Tuesday, September 14, 2021, SpaceX launched 51 new small satellites into the Starlink constellation. They will provide Internet broadband to the entire earth, including the remote and inaccessible places.

To date, Starlink has 1,750 small satellites, but it may include as many as 42,000 small satellites.

On the same day, 34 new small satellites were launched from OneWeb, a Starlink competitor. OneWeb’s satellites will provide broadband to the northern parts of the American and European continents. This constellation consists of 650 small satellites.

On March 30, 2021, the small satellites of Starlink and OneWeb were on a potential collision path and had to get away each other. The Starlink satellites had to do that Make track changes Several thousand times.

More than 900,000 objects

Today, more than 26,000 unwanted aliens are being tracked from Earth to prevent them from colliding with satellites and other spacecraft in orbit. The amount of space debris is estimated at a total of 8,800 tons and more than 900,000 objects of various sizes.

These include remnants of satellites and other spacecraft that are no longer in use, parts from used launch vehicles and parts after collisions in space.

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Space debris is the remnants of satellites, launch vehicles, and collisions in orbit around the Earth. Graphics: ESA

Both the International Space Station and satellites in orbit around the Earth must constantly move away from space debris on a collision course. This costs money, uptime, fuel and tracking.

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What is the effect of towers containing thousands of small satellites on the amount of space debris around the Earth?

The more satellites, the greater the danger

The more satellites in the busiest orbits around Earth, especially low Earth orbits, the greater the risk of collision, says Youngveld Linea Andelsvik, head of space monitoring at the Norwegian Space Center.

Space monitoring includes tracking space debris around Earth, warning of bad weather in space that could damage satellites and other technologies in orbit, and monitoring nearby asteroids and comets.

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Moving away from space junk costs money, operational changes, fuel and research time. Graphics: ESA

– In 2020 and 2021, the number of satellites in low Earth orbit has increased dramatically, and with this number warns of possible collisions, Andalsvik says.

Although there is a great deal of uncertainty in these collision warnings about the trajectories of objects on a collision course, operators must be notified and assess whether the risk is significant enough for an object to move away.

The challenge is that there are no clear traffic rules in the room. Can objects in the collision course maneuver? Andalsvik says if they both still have the ability to get away, who should move.

It should be done internationally

These are examples of issues for which there are no clear guidelines today. The United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COBOS) has come up with a set of guiding principles for the sustainable use of space.

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– It can be considered a first step towards international rules, and work is being done to achieve this, but there are long processes to reach an international agreement, and Kobus is a consensus-based forum, says Andelsvik.

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Here are some of the ways we can reduce the amount of space debris. Infographic: ESA

In June, Norway, along with other ESA member states and the European Union, participated in the European Space Traffic Management Conference, to begin work on a common European ambition in space traffic management.

The G7 nations of Canada, France, Italy, Japan, Great Britain, Germany and the United States also agreed this summer to work towards the safe and sustainable use of space, Andelsvik says.

Better tracking and clearing

In addition, guidelines have been established to reduce space waste. The European Space Agency prepares a report every year Regarding developments in the space environment, compliance with these guidelines has been reported.

It is recommended that new satellites be made so that they are effectively controlled or burn up in the atmosphere when not in use. Satellites in high orbits are directed even further, into the so-called graveyard orbits, where they can go without harming other spacecraft.

In LEO, less than half of the satellites still follow the recommendations, but it’s getting better every year. In addition, better tracking of space debris will reduce the uncertainty in collision warnings, and thus also the number of collision warnings between objects already being tracked, Andalsvik says.

In addition, more and more new satellites are becoming maneuverable so that they can move away from space debris, should the need arise.

Space organizations such as the European Space Agency (ESA) are developing spaceflights that will remove some space debris in orbit. Andalsvik says the technology that makes it possible to fix satellites in orbit, or take them into the atmosphere to burn up, is on its way now.

Norway is part of the European Space Agency (ESA Space Safety) and COPUOS program of the United Nations. The small Norwegian satellites in the AIS and NorSat series will burn up in the atmosphere once they are not in use and have lost sufficient altitude.


Yngvild Linnea Andalsvik – Head of Space and Space Observation Department – Norwegian Space Center – 482 11733

Dalila Awolowo

Dalila Awolowo

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