During the coming decade companies that include Amazon, SpaceX and OneWeb are seeking to launch well over 100,000 satellites to service wireless networks on Earth. Many more satellites may follow after that.
Astronomers are crying foul because the satellites—which have proven to be much more reflective than anticipated—are making it difficult for observatories to survey the night sky. The satellites show up as multiple streaky white lines in long-exposure photography so essential to detecting new objects in the distant reaches of the universe.
Thus have the wonders of wireless communications blinded us to the risks of filling the sky with so many satellites. Were that the extent of the problem, it would be irksome to the world astronomy community but probably not a major concern to the rest of us. Unfortunately, much bigger risks await us as the number of satellites in orbit around planet Earth reaches, well, astronomical proportions.
Far more serious is the impairment of our ability to monitor the skies for near-Earth objects that might collide with the planet—like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. This is important because we now have technology that would allow us to see such an object approaching early enough for us Earthlings to do something about it.
Part of the reason for the oversight is that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has not forced any of the satellite wireless companies to submit an environmental impact statement that might have led to the consideration of one very, very big possible impact! This is a colossal failure of risk management.
Now, it is true that an impact of the size that wiped out the dinosaurs is a very rare event. That impact happened 66 million years ago. But even smaller impacts can be a major concern in a world now filled with large, sprawling cities that could be obliterated by much smaller objects. It is as if we are in a strange duel in which our opponent is continuously firing a gun loaded with millions of projectiles at us but with very poor aim. The geologic record already shows that occasionally the shooter will hit us with devastatingly lethal consequences. Now, we have the technology to shoot back in such a way that would divert a projectile headed toward us before it hits.
It is important to remember that risk is calculated by multiplying the frequency of an event by the severity. A large meteor impact could conceivably wipe out both the members of the FCC and everyone else on Earth. A small impact could still take out millions in a densely populated metropolitan area. Weighed against faster wireless access to the internet—especially when that access is already being built on the ground—means that we are allowing these companies to increase the danger to all of human civilization (and much of the animal and plant kingdoms besides) so that the shareholders of a few companies can get a piece of the profits in the wireless industry. Let’s call it the privatization of heavenly profits alongside the socialization of planetary risks.
While I should stop my analysis here—since carelessly increasing the possibility that millions of people and perhaps all of humanity and much of life on Earth could be wiped out is the biggest risk I can think of—I feel compelled to mention that these companies are creating an orbital infrastructure that if improperly managed could lead to the uncontrolled creation of so much space junk as to make orbital flight too dangerous. With so many more objects in orbit around the earth, the chances for collisions will increase dramatically.
To get a sense of the rapidly increasing danger, it is useful to look at a database of satellites maintained by the Union of Concerned Scientists. As of July 31, 2020 the total number of operating satellites orbiting the Earth was 2,787. And, companies are anticipating adding 100,000 or more in the next decade simply to satisfy the financial desires of shareholders seeking a share of the wireless industry’s profits.
(Please don’t be taken in by claims that these satellite networks will bring service to underserved and unserved areas of the world. All the profits are in the high-density urban areas where just a few antennas can service a huge number of geographically concentrated users. No company seeking to reward its shareholders with profit will spend very much money building ground antennas to serve sparsely settled rural areas—and companies are under no obligation to do so. Remember: Users cannot access these satellites directly. They must connect through ground-based antennas, the locations of which will determine the coverage area. This is unlike the Iridium system launched by Motorola in the 1990s which is a true satellite phone system offering direct connections to satellites orbiting the Earth.)
The space junk problem is not merely theoretical. The European Space Agency estimates that there are 29,000 pieces of space junk larger than 10 cm, 670,000 larger than 1 cm, and 170 million larger than one millimeter. Here’s how the ESA explains the possible effects:
Any of these objects can cause harm to an operational spacecraft. For example, a collision with a 10-cm object would entail a catastrophic fragmentation of a typical satellite, a 1-cm object would most likely disable a spacecraft and penetrate the ISS [International Space Station] shields, and a 1-mm object could destroy sub-systems on board a spacecraft.
The Iridium system mentioned above has already had one of its satellites collide with a Russian satellite creating a dangerous debris field. The ultimate danger is a cascading set of collisions, known as the Kessler Effect, that feed on one another, each creating more and more debris until the space around Earth is no longer safe for any spaceship to navigate.
All of this risk is being borne by the rest of humanity to line to pockets of investors. But that’s perfectly consistent with our continued neglect of climate change and the myriad other issues which pose existential danger to the human species and many other species besides.
Photo: “Astronaut Dale A. Gardner, having just completed the major portion of his second extravehicular activity (EVA) period in three days, holds up a “For Sale” sign refering to the two satellites, Palapa B-2 and Westar 6 that they retrieved from orbit after their Payload Assist Modules (PAM) failed to fire. Astronaut Joseph P. Allen IV, who also participated in the two EVAs, is reflected in Gardner’s helmet visor. A portion of each of two recovered satellites is in the lower right corner, with Westar 6 nearer Discovery’s aft.” Unknown date. Photo by NASA via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Satellites_For_Sale.jpg