“A crescendo of concern” over crowded orbits

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Quilty Analytics, in its latest quarterly ‘state of the industry’ report, quotes recognised satellite business leaders expressing their concerns on the risks to commercial space – and specifically LEO – and the launching of potentially tens of thousands of satellites.

Quilty references three leading executives (Viasat’s Mark Dankberg, SES’s Steve Collar, and Steve Spengler, the departing head of Intelsat), saying their warnings are part of a crescendo of concern regarding space sustainability and the growing risks of orbital debris.

For all those who seek to use and benefit from space, this raises critical questions, including:

  • How great are the risks from the current “LEO land grab” in which proposed new Mega-constellations have become almost routine? (U.S. company Astra, for example, filed with the FCC on November 4th to deploy more than 13,000 satellites that would operate in LEO and use V-band)
  • Can we predict/model the number of satellites that can operate safely in LEO assuming factors such as satellite size (cross-sectional area), manoeuvrability, and the use of advanced systems to track objects and warn about possible space collisions?
  • How does the likelihood of a collision increase as the number of satellites grows? Dankberg has cited 40,000 as potentially the maximum number of active satellites that could be supported in LEO. He was clear that this non-definitive conclusion is based on one study and welcomed other ideas. But if we use the number 40,000, how do we decide which countries or commercial operators can launch? What if the U.S. wants to launch more satellites for national defense? What if China, Russia or other spacefaring nations do the same?
  • Is there a regulatory authority, such as the FCC or ITU, that can lead this effort? What if they have conflicts of interests or are unable to take timely action? What would be their means of deterrence/enforcement?

“It is unclear whether we have reached a tipping point on space sustainability that will lead to effective action, but industry leaders are sounding the alarm. We expect 2022 to bring further developments, possible regulations, and most likely proposals,” said Quilty.

Quilty also talks about the US Department of Defense and a plan to either buy capacity from existing operators or perhaps even launch its own constellation of LEO craft. Either way, the DoD has a reported $875 million in capacity business up for grabs (spread over 10 years).

Meanwhile, the likes of OneWeb, Starlink, Telesat and other LEO operators are pitching for the DoD proposed LEO business.

Chris Quilty commented: “We largely see DoD’s pivot to LEO as adding to commercial industry demand, certainly for most of this decade. If DoD is able to fully realise its envisioned LEO performance advantages, such an outcome would likely lead in time to a transition from GEO, but we would expect this to play out over a decade or more, with hybrid architectures prevailing over any single orbit.”


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