The number of active satellites has more than quadrupled in the last decade, and the race to space is only getting started.
Over the past few years, the night sky has changed faster than at any time in human history, and the trend will continue in 2022 as our relationship with the space beyond our planet’s atmosphere grows more intimate. But changing relationships come with consequences. This holds true even for something as seemingly benign as how our species interacts with the cold, dead vacuum behind the blue sky above payday loan stores in Oneida Tennessee us.
In early December, my small town held a nighttime holiday festival where hundreds gathered on our historic plaza to count down the lighting of a huge tree. Minutes after the three-story pine burst out of the darkness into a new state of multicolored glowing glory, a friend pointed up at the clear New Mexico night sky.
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I looked up toward the top of the illuminated evergreen where a string of shimmering lights moved in an impossibly straight line, appearing to emanate from the tip of the tree. The lights moved quickly across the darkened dome above us, occasionally fading in and out, but always maintaining their straight path.
“Starlink,” I told my friend as more people in the crowd were beginning to point at the sky. “They launched those last night.”
At the end of 2021 there were around 5,000 active satellites in orbit , according to leading orbit-watcher Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. That’s almost a fivefold jump since 2010. In the past es have declared intentions to launch thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit to blanket the planet in high-speed internet access beamed direct from space.
SpaceX has already launched about 2,000 of its Starlink satellites in the last few years. If Elon Musk’s company, as well as Amazon, Boeing, China and others all follow through on their ambitious plans to build constellations in low Earth orbit, it could mean over 30,000 additional satellites encircling our planet 10 years from now.
At a minimum, we can expect SpaceX and OneWeb to continue to launch hundreds more satellites during 2022. Amazon plans to boost the first of its Project Kuiper orbiting broadband routers in the latter part of the year.
In 2022, the new space race will get more heated, crowded and dangerous
The question of how well we can manage all these commercial constellations to avoid potential collisions keeps some space watchers up at night. In 2019, a European spacecraft had to perform an evasive maneuver to avoid coming too close to a Starlink. SpaceX cited “a bug in our on-call paging system,” causing a communications breakdown that led to the incident.
Hugh Lewis, who leads the astronautics research group at the University of Southampton, explains that managing Starlink is actually a complicated dance of coordination involving the US Space Force 18th Space Wing and secondary satellite information providers like LeoLabs. And SpaceX is just one constellation operator.
“The key point is that it is not exclusively the domain of SpaceX,” Lewis told me. “Conversely, SpaceX have an important responsibility to maintain a safe environment for every mission making use of or passing through the Starlink orbital shell. The decisions made by SpaceX to manage Starlink have a much broader impact than we might have anticipated when the constellation was proposed and approval was granted by the [Federal Communications Commission].”
And all this comes at a time when space — at least near Earth — is also becoming crowded in other ways, with traffic to and from our planet at unprecedented levels.