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Are satellites on collision course? ESA raises concern about risky business in space


The ESA has woken up to the risks of private companies like SpaceX and others launching thousands of satellites into the low Earth orbit (LEO). There are some unregistered flying objects and plenty of debris as well, making collisions more than likely.

Are satellites on collision course? ESA raises concern about risky business in space
At a recent United Nations-sponsored conference on sustainable space development goals in Geneva, concerns were raised about catastrophic satellite collisions in the low Earth orbit (LEO) -- less than 1,000 kilometres or 625 miles from the surface -- with thousands of new launches, especially by private companies.
The concern has been reiterated in a report by the European Space Agency (ESA) about space environment and safety. "Our behaviour in space is unsustainable and if we continue at this pace, the number of objects in orbit will make it hard to safely operate in space at all," India Today reported quoting the .
The report also warned that more than half of the operators flying at this important altitude make no attempt to sustainably dispose of their missions, resulting in more satellite debris than the operational ones, thus standing a risk of rendering the space impractical. This rise in the volume of space junk could prove detrimental to further missions, with countries pushing for more space exploration, warned the report.
According to the report, over 23,000 objects are tracked every minute today to detect potential collisions with satellites and the International Space Station (ISS).
Recent years have seen several collisions, at least two of them involving SpaceX satellites for its Starlink constellation project.
According to the ESA, the amount of debris in the LEO is increasing from the number of objects launched to their overall mass and the area they take up.
Since the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, there has been a manifold increase in rocket and satellite launches from across the world. Over the last few decades, private companies have come into the scene by launching smaller satellites.
A current example is the Starlink project of Elon Musk’s space exploration company SpaceX, which recently received authorisation from the United States regulator, Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to provide broadband from space and place thousands of satellites in an even lower orbit than the previously proposed space in the LEO. SpaceX had requested FCC authorisation for up to 42,000 satellites.
Meanwhile, the number of unregistered objects in the LEO has also increased. At the recent UN-sponsored conference, several SpaceX competitors raised questions about heightened radio interference.
Several astronomers have complained about these massive launches and constellations blocking the Earth's field of view of the universe, which is already a challenge owing to the thick atmosphere.
The ESA, in its report, alleged that over half of the space actors operating the non-compliant missions make no attempt to sustainably dispose of their missions. “The numbers are gradually improving, but it is not fast enough.” Modern space debris regulations demand that incidents like China’s Long March 5 rocket should not happen. Uncontrolled re-entries should have less than one in 10,000 chances of injuring anyone on the ground.
Recently, China was criticised after around a three-storey-high chunk of its biggest rocket, Long March 5, started tumbling back towards Earth. The rocket was launched with parts of China’s under-construction space station.
A major bulk of the chunk was destroyed upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, while the remaining part landed in the Indian Ocean last month.
A large proportion of debris in orbit today are leftovers from just a couple of fragmentation events -- the infamous collision between satellites Cosmos-2251 and Iridium 33 in 2009 that created a huge cloud of debris.
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