Will Elon Musk’s Starlink Satellites Turn Space into a Garbage Can?

And one more release! This Sunday, Elon Musk’s Space X company will once again send 60 Starlink satellites into space. Departure from Cape Canaveral Resort in Florida at 8:42 am (French time). This will be the sixth launch of the mission that aims to establish a constellation of several thousand satellites in low orbit around Earth to provide a worldwide internet connection.

The previous satellite dispatch took place on May 4.

These satellites are sometimes observed by local residents, especially in France, where testimonies multiply, as happened with Jean-Michel, who lives in Décines, east of Lyon: “It was 10:40 pm on Friday and we saw a light in the direction At first we thought it was a plane then we had the impression of seeing stars… But they were between 70 and 80 and in line with a very short spacing between them Perfect! We were able to see the beginning and end of this episode that lasted about ten minutes Going online, we thought it was definitely Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites.”

Global internet coverage

With this project, Elon Musk seeks to cover the most deprived areas of the Internet, as long as he has the right equipment: a satellite dish. The service may also be available soon in France. As noted in the May 7 Business Insider, the service’s official website is now translated into French.

According to the American founder’s projections at the beginning of the year, Starlink will be able to cover most of the globe by the end of 2021. And all that until 2022. So far, more than 1,500 satellites have been sent. Eventually, the space fleet should include around 12,000 satellites by 2025. But it could also grow to over 40,000.

“We’re throwing space junk!”

But the proliferation of objects in space worries experts. “The number, mass and surface area of ​​these objects are constantly increasing, and this increases the risk they pose to active satellites,” he says. the European Space Agency (ESA). ESA estimates that more than 900,000 pieces of debris larger than 1 cm are currently in orbit and more than 30,000 larger than 10 cm. “Any impact with a functioning satellite could cause damage and potentially end its mission,” adds ESA.

Sending satellites into space sometimes even directly generates debris that could have been avoided. “Of the first batch of 60 satellites launched by Elon Musk, 6 were out of service, that is, 10% of the fleet: we are launching space debris!” lamented Christophe Bonnal, researcher at CNES during a conference at the Palace of Discovery last November.

Especially as projects are multiplying. If Jeff Bezos, the head of Amazon, has not yet sent a single satellite, he intends to compete with Elon Musk with his Kuiper constellation for a value of 10 billion euros.

Several centuries to fall back to Earth

To prevent the space from turning into a garbage can, around 5 to 10 large pieces of rubble a year would need to be removed, France Culture reported. With a cost of 10 to 20 million euros estimated by debris. Space objects can also fall back to Earth on their own. But it all depends on the altitude. At 600 km above the ground it will take several years to fall, at 800 km it will be several decades and beyond 1000 km we are talking centuries. Starlink satellites are deployed between 1,100 and 1,300 km altitude.

If the cost of removing debris is substantial in absolute terms, it is much less compared to any collision. “The destruction of satellites or the permanent loss of certain orbits (…) would have a direct financial impact of more than 8 billion euros, and would seriously affect the world economy”, specifies the ESA. Knowing that global satellite operators would currently spend 14 million euros a year on maneuvers to avoid debris impact.

A number that will increase with the number of debris in space… resulting, among other things, from collisions that are likely to multiply.

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