Alert! NASA raises asteroid strike WARNING over SpaceX satellites
NASA said that Elon Musk's plan to boost the SpaceX satellite fleet by 30,000 could endanger the International Space Station and hamper efforts to watch for potentially catastrophic asteroid strikes.
Elon Musk's plan to boost the SpaceX satellite fleet by 30,000 could endanger the International Space Station and hamper efforts to watch for potentially catastrophic asteroid strikes, NASA said. Crowding in the low-Earth orbits the satellites would occupy could impact ground-based systems that warn of possible collisions by interstellar objects. In addition, “the safety of the International Space Station (ISS) and all other NASA assets may be impacted” by the surge in space-based platforms, the agency said in comments filed with the Federal Communications Commission.
The FCC is vetting the plan by SpaceX for a new generation of satellites. Musk said in a Jan. 15 tweet that the company had 1,469 Starlink satellites active, with 272 moving to operational orbits.
The concern over a collision isn't theoretical. Two SpaceX satellites had near misses with the China space station last year -- one of them within 4 kilometers (2.5 miles). In both instances, the orbiting lab made evasive maneuvers to avoid Starlink satellites. The close encounters prompted the Chinese government to criticize SpaceX in a Dec. 6 memo to a United Nations committee that oversees operations in space.
With the planned expansion, Musk's Starlinks may appear “in every single asteroid survey image taken for planetary defense” by ground-based telescopes, NASA said. That “could have a detrimental effect on our planet's ability to detect and possibly redirect a potentially catastrophic impact.”
SpaceX didn't immediately reply to an emailed request for comment.
NASA said SpaceX should show how its satellites can automatically avoid collisions, even as other operators launch large constellations. It also called on SpaceX to work to minimize impacts to observation services.
The International Space Station -- which orbits at an average altitude of about 250 miles -- has previously faced some close calls, ducking debris fields created from anti-satellite weapons tests by Russia in November and China in 2007.
It's hard to determine the extent of collision risk between the ISS and the full 30,000-satellite constellation planned by Musk, the world's wealthiest person, largely because it's not clear if they'd be operating at the same time. Last month, NASA outlined plans to decommission and deorbit the space station in 2031.
While SpaceX hasn't publicly set a timeline to launch the full constellation, Bloomberg Intelligence forecast the company won't hit the 30,000-satellite mark until 2028.
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