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Space Earth NASA Science Technology

Broadband Expansion Could Trigger Dangerous Surge In Space Junk (theguardian.com) 129

A new study from the University of Southampton warns that expanding broadband networks via launching "mega constellations" of thousands of communications satellites could increase catastrophic crashes of dangerous space junk in Earth's orbit. "Dr Hugh Lewis, a senior lecturer in aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton, ran a 200-year simulation to assess the possible consequences of such a rise in orbital traffic," reports The Guardian. "He found it could create a 50% increase in the number of catastrophic collisions between satellites." From the report: Such crashes would probably lead to a further increase in the amount of space junk in orbit, he said, leading to the possibility of further collisions and potential damage to the services the satellites were intended to provide. The European Space Agency, which funded Lewis's research, is calling for the satellites planned for orbital mega-constellations to be able to move to low altitudes once their missions are over so they burn up in Earth's atmosphere. They must also be able discharge all batteries, fuel tanks and pressure tanks to prevent explosions that would scatter debris. Lewis is presenting his research this week at the European conference on space debris at the ESA's center in Darmsadt, Germany. Krag said he expected some of the companies planning launches to attend.
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Broadband Expansion Could Trigger Dangerous Surge In Space Junk

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  • What we're really finding out here is that we need to build an orbital cleanup satellite. I know that nets have been suggested but considering the speeds we're dealing with in orbit (about 17K mph), it seems like a beaded door curtain would be able to handle the stress and be able to catch small pieces. Naturally, each strand of the "curtain" would need to be exceptionally strong, perhaps something like woven carbon nanotubes.

    However it's designed, we need to build something to clean up our space junk tha

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      What we're really finding out here is that we need to build an orbital cleanup satellite.

      We don't even need a satellite. We can do it from the earth's surface. Just put a big fricken laser on the summit of Mauna Kea or Cerro Toco, point it westward, and shoot it at the leading surface of the debris to slow it down into an unstable orbit.

      • That's a lot of wasted energy! How do you plan to power that shit? It would be much easier, cheaper, efficient to just to place a laser in geostationary orbit and blast debris when the sun charges its capacitor bank.

        • How is a laser in geostationary orbit cheaper than one on the ground ?

      • "Just put a big fricken laser on the summit of Mauna Kea..."

        If the Democrat volcano gods hate astronomy, they are really not going to like this idea.

      • by phayes ( 202222 )

        New construction on Mauna Kea is already at a standstill because of some Hawaiians who think that telescopes disrespect the great volcano spirit -- but you want to put a massive Laser up there?!?

        • New construction on Mauna Kea is already at a standstill because of some Hawaiians who think that telescopes disrespect the great volcano spirit -- but you want to put a massive Laser up there?!?

          Satellites are real, though.

        • New construction on Mauna Kea is already at a standstill because of some Hawaiians who think that telescopes disrespect the great volcano spirit

          Nobody really believes that. They are just looking for a payoff. We just need to bribe the right people and the objections will disappear.

          • by phayes ( 202222 )

            The suit that stopped construction was brought by native Hawaiians who feel that their state was stolen by the white man and a federal judge gave them enough credence to stop construction. Feel free to attempt to buy off one or the other. I wish I could be there to see the consequences...

      • Is there any way we can attach those frickin' lasers to sharks? Or at least ill-tempered sea-bass?
    • by Nkwe ( 604125 )

      What we're really finding out here is that we need to build an orbital cleanup satellite.

      Or just use mega maid [youtube.com].

  • by dwywit ( 1109409 ) on Wednesday April 19, 2017 @04:10AM (#54261707)

    A "low-cost" device sent into LEO? So it's being sold on the admittedly astonishingly low cost compared to traditional launch costs.

    So any additional costs (such as end-of-life mechanisms designed to put it into a burn trajectory) are going to have a proportionally greater impact on that "low cost" selling point, which means the proponents have a motive to resist such extra mechanisms and costs.

    Anything sold on its main benefit being "low cost" will eventually result in a race to the bottom, and the cost-cutting that entails - "hey, our module is lighter and cheaper to get into orbit (because we decided to do without expensive impact shielding/temperature control/whatever)"

    • So any additional costs (such as end-of-life mechanisms designed to put it into a burn trajectory) are going to have a proportionally greater impact on that "low cost" selling point, which means the proponents have a motive to resist such extra mechanisms and costs.

      Anything sold on its main benefit being "low cost" will eventually result in a race to the bottom, and the cost-cutting that entails - "hey, our module is lighter and cheaper to get into orbit (because we decided to do without expensive impact sh

      • Ah, but someone else (OK, everyone else) pays the externalized costs of my EOL'ed cubesat/space junk. Why do you hate capitalism? Why do you hate America?
      • by phayes ( 202222 )

        It's a non problem. Cube-sats are deployed to low-earth orbits and burn up after a few years anyway. The space junk problem is for things in higher orbits that take centuries/millennia to de-orbit naturally.

      • I've been saying to anyone who'd listen,

        I bet you're popular at parties ;P

    • If crap I buy from Amazon can have a way to recycle it, then I'm pretty sure the millions we spend on satellites can stand a small increase to cover the costs of cleanup/recovery/de-orbit or whatever.

      I know it's a dirty word, but some minor regulations here would solve this problem in short order. That only requires that the countries with launch capability agree to it (yeah, easier said than done).

  • Restrict orbits (Score:5, Interesting)

    by religionofpeas ( 4511805 ) on Wednesday April 19, 2017 @04:16AM (#54261725)

    A simple solution would be for such satellites to be restricted to orbits with a short expected lifetime.

    • by phayes ( 202222 )

      The sat networks being mooted recently do exactly that using the lower cost to orbit/higher launch cadence that reusables are making possible.

      Instead of sats being so expensive to launch that you perform as few launches as possible and place very expensive high capability sats in mid-level orbits that take centuries to degrade, low-cost reusable launchers perform more launches with less expensive sats that reenter after a few years anyway.

      Disadvantages: More sats & more launches are needed.

      Advantages: B

    • The IADC [iadc-online.org] and its member space agencies (which I think includes the work of Drs. Lewis and Krag) are all studying the effects these large constellations will have on the space debris environment. Here's [iadc-online.org] the IADC statement from last year. The ESA conference this week and IADC next week are starting to show the results.

      One issue is that the existing debris-reduction standards allow a certain small probability of payload/mission failure per payload. When a single "mission" launches hundreds [oneweb.world] or thousands [spaceflightinsider.com] o
    • The problem is that collisions in these short-lived lower orbits can result in debris with enough energy to be kicked up into higher orbits where they'll remain for a longer time.
      • The problem is that collisions in these short-lived lower orbits can result in debris with enough energy to be kicked up into higher orbits where they'll remain for a longer time.

        A collision would be unlikely to create debris with higher speed than the original parts, most of it will go slower, and fall down. Also, the new orbit of the debris would still intersect the old one at the point of impact.

    • Or someone could make a relatively inexpensive generic de-orbit module and create an international agreement that all new satellites have one.
      • Deorbiting doesn't take a special module. Most satellites will have small thrusters and some fuel for station keeping that can be used to deorbit. The problem is when the satellite dies before it gets a chance to deorbit itself. With a low orbit you won't have that problem. The fuel is used to keep the satellite up, and when the fuel runs out, it will automatically fall back down.

        • That's why you have a standard module with known life expectancy. Why re-engineer a custom foolproof solution for each satellite? Sure it will add cost but eventually the cost of having too much junk in orbit is going to greater....
          • That's why you have a standard module with known life expectancy. Why re-engineer a custom foolproof solution for each satellite?

            The standard module can die just as well as the rest of the satellite. A low orbit can't fail. Even in the case of a collision, pretty much all the debris will come falling down.

  • ... to pollute every enviroment it can access. We've done a nice job messing up our atmosphere, the land and sea so the next frontier naturally is space. Who cares if ultimately all this microsatellite crap put up by here today, gone tommorow startups will hang about for decades and cause endless future problems for serious satellites in the future? Profit matters and it matters NOW! Hang any other considerations, right?

    • But wait, I thought they towed it outside the environment?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      So stop being part of the problem will you? Land, sea, air & space would be too much cleaner without you around to pollute it!

    • OMG. The hand-wringing that goes on here.

      Pick one of those projects and read the technical details; de-orbiting is built right in.

      For example:
      https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp... [arstechnica.net]

      That link is the SpaceX plan. Please refer to page 55 for re-entry estimates. These constellations are destined for orbits that are just outside the thermosphere so the real challenge is keeping them in orbit for the duration their useful life.
    • We've even started littering on Mars!
  • by Anonymous Coward

    With all the space junk, and polar rivers flowing backwards, and Al Gore jetting around in his private aircraft, and Muslim maniacs, and Elizabeth Warren, and alligators on golf courses. I'm going back to sleep.

  • How about we just use fiber instead?

  • This is really going full on glass half empty and it's wrong to single out communications. We are at the point where we are increasing our usage of space resources for all kinds of things. That means there's going to be more stuff up there from everything. It's a sign progress. Who knows the stuff might be able to be harvested and reused in orbit.

    • Who knows the stuff might be able to be harvested and reused in orbit.

      That activity is on the other side of asteroid mining... well on the other side of it. We're nowhere near there. This can become a problem long before then. Using communications satellites for anything other than getting coverage where it's not physically possible to get a wire is retarded, and I mean that word literally. It is scientifically retarded.

  • by unixcorn ( 120825 ) on Wednesday April 19, 2017 @08:50AM (#54262375)

    Scientists need to invent a space vacuum cleaner.....

  • mentioned in the summary...you don't expect me to actually read the article, do you?
  • by Archfeld ( 6757 )

    The Fsck'n companies can't even expand manage and compete in their terrestrial areas, there is no way they should be allowed access to orbit. The lag associated with satellite internet access is awful. Why should we let them have access and compete with Hughes net when they won't compete with their land bound opposition. Screw AT&T, Spectrum, Rogers, and Shaw.

    • The companies you mention are the ones likely lobbying against this because it competes with them. This is a good idea. Anybody with the right antenna can get gigabit broadband regardless of where they live (within the latitude range of 55 to -55 so Alaska is still pretty fucked). Said antenna can probably be mass produced for a few dollars; probably built into the lid of a laptop; pure speculation on my part.

According to all the latest reports, there was no truth in any of the earlier reports.

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