Satellite builders should have Space Sustainability Plans to allow the ready disposal of satellites when their services’ lives end, a top U.S. Space Command official said on Aug. 9.
“We should all be concerned and register some level of awareness that, as we continue to put things up in space, it is getting more congested, and we do run the risks of more and more debris and making it such that it becomes at some point harder to operate in space, rather than easier,” Gen. John Shaw, the deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, told Utah State University’s annual Small Satellite Conference in a virtual address.
Such a plan would also address clean launches that do not lead to space clutter and designing satellites that do not fall apart, as they age, Shaw said, adding that the Space Sustainability Plans would apply to companies building mega-constellations, such as SpaceX‘s Starlink satellites, and academic institutions building unique research satellites.
“What is your Space Sustainability Plan? I think I like to put it back that way, rather than disposability,” Shaw said. “How are you making it so that you’re operating your capability through its life cycle, which means at the end-of-life, in a way that keeps space sustainable. I like that most proliferated Low Earth Orbit constellations [LEO] have built-in disposal mechanisms. Starlink is a good example. Those satellites retain enough fuel so that they can be re-entered when they’re done with their end-of-life. Now how are we doing that? Maybe it’s a bit harder for a university building a one-off small sat to build that in, but you have to ask yourself that question and have an answer.”
For new satellites in higher Medium Earth Orbit and Geostationary Earth Orbit, disposal challengers are greater, as the “re-entry option’s just not there” for such satellites, Shaw said.
International rules of the road for space traffic management and practices for end-of-life satellite practices will likely take on a higher priority.
“The rapid development of mega-constellations risks multiple tragedies of the commons, including tragedies to ground-based astronomy, Earth orbit, and Earth’s upper atmosphere,” according to a scientific report earlier this year for the journal, Nature. “Moreover, the connections between the Earth and space environments are inadequately taken into account by the adoption of a consumer electronic model applied to space assets. For example, we point out that satellite re-entries from the Starlink mega-constellation alone could deposit more aluminum into Earth’s upper atmosphere than what is done through meteoroids; they could thus become the dominant source of high-altitude alumina. Using simple models, we also show that untracked debris will lead to potentially dangerous on-orbit collisions on a regular basis due to the large number of satellites within mega-constellation orbital shells.”
Last October, China said that it had begun an effort to launch 10,000 satellites in LEO in the next decade–a constellation nicknamed China StarNet.
In March, Bao Weimin, a director of the Science and Technology Commission of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), confirmed China’s plan to forge ahead on the Guówang (GW)–Chinese for national grid–LEO satellites.
Filings with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) indicate that China actually plans to field a 12,992 satellite LEO megaconstellation–6,080 in the GW-A59 group and 6,912 in the GW-2 group.
The U.S. military is increasingly looking to use the capabilities of commercial satellites, such as Starlink, which now has more than 1,700 orbiting LEO satellites. Billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk owns SpaceX and has divulged plans for 42,000 such satellites.
Air Force Lt. Col. Chris Mulder, a fellow with the Atlantic Council and a co-author of The Future of Security in Space: A 30-Year U.S. Strategy said in May that the U.S. must counter the goals of China’s GW constellation, which he said is aimed to influence the three to four billion people in the world who lack internet access (Defense Daily, May 26).
“If they can tap into those three or four billion people and access data that those people can’t necessarily generate right now, they can yield influence and power,” Mulder said. “Figuring out a way to process and feed in our own data and to tap into the data that the Chinese are seeking will be very, very important.”