Just How Many Satellites is Enough?

One day we may be gazing at satellite’s instead of stars. That’s right, satellites are on their way to becoming what we see before we can see the stars. Right now, thousands of satellites are out there lumbering in our upper atmosphere in the interest of science, defense or technology. And yet some governments and companies want to put thousands more in space to track any number of things, yes even you and me. How many are there? There are currently an estimated 4500 satellites orbiting the earth, the catch is it took fifty years for them to be launched into space. Decades have passed since the technology was developed with the advent of Sputnik 1, the first of many Russian satellites to enter orbit in October 1957. That moment began the space race between Russia and the United States.

Many countries have put satellites into service for various purposes from global positioning systems to telecommunications to spy satellites they are out there. But recent trends show that dozens of countries aim to put more satellites into orbit including several companies with an interest in space travel and bringing the internet to every corner of the earth. Leading among those, China has said it intends to launch thousands of satellites into space in its tech race making an already crowded field ever more cluttered. Not to be outdone, Elon Musk has said he intends to launch thousands of satellites to project his SpaceX company into the future of internet constellation building ultimately bringing the internet to… well everywhere. Musk was asked how many satellites could be accommodated to which he responded that tens of billions of satellites can co-exist. Stunning as that may seem there is little to stop most actors from putting hundreds even thousands of satellites into orbit and do that they will as we watch (or don’t watch in the case of those secretive countries) launch after launch of satellites across the globe. But orbital capacity may make that a difficult proposition as some satellites have already attracted attention. Several months ago, China complained that a SpaceX satellite nearly hit its orbiting space station causing the station to adjust its trajectory to avoid the speeding satellite. The incident brought unwanted attention to the number of satellites already in orbit and the number being proposed. All told, there are 100,000 proposed satellites from various global sources.

The Federal Communications Commission recently indicated that nearly 40,000 satellites have been proposed to the agency in 2021 alone making it a banner year for applications compared to other periods. The agency has not indicated what formula it will use to determine which ones get shot into orbit and which ones will not. But the effort to regulate space will require much more than the cooperation of the US agency as dozens of countries see their future written in the constellation of space. Countries such as Iran and North Korea are looking to place satellites into orbit for any number of reasons none of which may be good. Many of those satellites lack the technology to avoid collisions by boosting out of the way as SpaceX says their satellites can do. With all that pressure how will we avoid possible collisions and there impending fall to the earth? The answer to that is still to be determined. While several think tank organizations are thinking about this conundrum no government or agency has come forward with a plan namely because doing so may be to suggest that developing countries may not aspire to have satellites. A proposal that would likely draw the ire of many leaders across the globe that need that kind of technology for peaceful purposes such as telecommunications or global positioning systems. The problem threatens not only other satellites but also space travel, the international space station and earth. Falling satellites is a danger all too real as those that are decommissioned simply remain in orbit until they crash or fall. Recently, SpaceX announced that 40 satellites would fall from orbit due to a geo magnetic storm. The company said that none of the satellites will hit earth because they will all perish upon re-entry into earth’s atmosphere. We can only hope that earlier decommissioned more robust satellites meet the same fate.

Not many satellites have fallen back to earth to cause disaster but with thousands in space and thousands more to come the threat of solar storms and other phenomena, we don’t yet know the extent of the danger posed by that many satellites in space. That is why is important for the United Nations to tackle a strategic plan to deal with just how much is enough. It will be contentious of course but the need for some kind of regulation is obvious. I am sure that the people of all the world agree that we can only tolerate a certain number of objects orbiting over our heads. The problem will be can we all agree at once. Something increasingly difficult to achieve in recent years. Stay tuned.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Hector Santana

Hector Santana

Top Writer-Camping. I love to write about the great outdoors, survival and foreign policy. An avid outdoorsman and survival instructor.