Around 3% Of SpaceX’s Starlink Satellites Have Failed, Astronomer Says
An astronomer says around 3% of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites have failed in orbit – a small number now, but with potentially disastrous implications later.
Following its first batch of 60 prototypes back in 2019, Elon Musk’s firm has launched a total of 775 Starlink spacecraft. It’s only the beginning for the tech founder, with plans to fill the skies with a ‘megaconstellation’ of 42,000 different satellites. So far, he’s been given permission for 12,000.
Starlink is Musk’s concept for ‘high speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable’, transmitted back down to Earth via thousands of low-orbit signals from above. However, if those satellites die, outer space could become even more treacherous.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Business Insider, ‘I would say their failure rate is not egregious. It’s not worse than anybody else’s failure rates. The concern is that even a normal failure rate in such a huge constellation is going to end up with a lot of bad space junk.’
SpaceX’s website specifically addresses the issue of ‘on-orbit debris mitigation’, explaining:
At end of life, the satellites will utilise their on-board propulsion system to deorbit over the course of a few months. In the unlikely event the propulsion system becomes inoperable, the satellites will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere within 1-5 years, significantly less than the hundreds or thousands of years required at higher altitudes.
However, as well as accounting for the orbits that have fallen back to Earth, McDowell’s data – built by analysing the movement of satellites – also shows which spacecraft aren’t being manoeuvred. SpaceX deorbited 45 of its satellites intentionally as part of tests, which haven’t been included in the 3% figure.
If the alleged 3% figure was applied to Musk’s entire fleet in the future, there could be 1,260 satellites barrelling around Earth faster than a speeding bullet. If they collided with another satellite, spacecraft or piece of debris, it could create a storm of space junk – a bit like 2013’s Gravity. Each Starlink satellite also weighs 260kg.
While not commenting on the astronomer’s findings, nor releasing data regarding the status of its satellites, SpaceX noted in earlier Federal Communications Commission filings that it ‘views satellite failure to deorbit rates of 10 or 5% as unacceptable, and even a rate of 1% is unlikely’.
In the event that a satellite died in orbit, the company stated ‘there is approximately a 1% chance per decade that any failed SpaceX satellite would collide with a piece of tracked debris’.
Earlier this month, Musk teased an upcoming test of the Starlink system, tweeting, ‘Once these satellites reach their target position, we will be able to roll out a fairly wide public beta in northern US & hopefully southern Canada.’ As for the rest of the world, he wrote, ‘Other countries to follow as soon as we receive regulatory approval.’
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