An astronomer says around 3% of SpaceXâs Starlink satellites have failed in orbit â a small number now, with potentially disastrous implications later.
Following its first batch of 60 prototypes back in 2019, Elon Muskâs firm has launched a total of 775 Starlink spacecraft. Itâs only the beginning for the tech founder, with plans to fill the skies with a âmegaconstellationâ of 42,000 different satellites. So far, heâs been given permission for 12,000.
Starlink is Muskâs concept for âhigh speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailableâ, transmitted back down to Earth via thousands of low-orbit signals from above. However, if those satellites die, outer space could become even more treacherous.
Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Business Insider: âI would say their failure rate is not egregious. Itâs not worse than anybody elseâs failure rates. The concern is that even a normal failure rate in such a huge constellation is going to end up with a lot of bad space junk.â
At end of life, the satellites will utilise their on-board propulsion system to deorbit over the course of a few months. In the unlikely event the propulsion system becomes inoperable, the satellites will burn up in Earthâs atmosphere within 1-5 years, significantly less than the hundreds or thousands of years required at higher altitudes.
However, as well as accounting for the orbits which have fallen back to Earth, McDowellâs data â built by analysing the movement of satellites â also shows which spacecraft arenât being manoeuvred. SpaceX deorbited 45 of its satellites intentionally as part of tests, which havenât been included in the 3% figure.
If the alleged 3% figure was applied to Muskâs entire fleet in the future, there could be 1,260 satellites barrelling around Earth faster than a speeding bullet. If they collided with another satellite, spacecraft or piece of debris, it could create a storm of space junk â a bit like 2013âs Gravity. Each Starlink satellite also weighs 260kg.
While not commenting on the astronomers findings, nor releasing data regarding the status of its satellites, SpaceX noted in earlier Federal Communications Commission filings that it âviews satellite failure to deorbit rates of 10 or 5% as unacceptable, and even a rate of 1% is unlikelyâ.
In the event that a satellite died in orbit, the company stated âthere is approximately a 1% chance per decade that any failed SpaceX satellite would collide with a piece of tracked debrisâ.
Earlier this month, Musk teased an upcoming test of the Starlink system, tweeting: âOnce these satellites reach their target position, we will be able to roll out a fairly wide public beta in northern US & hopefully southern Canada.â As for the rest of the world, he wrote: âOther countries to follow as soon as we receive regulatory approval.â
After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BJTC-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He’s now left his Scottish homelands and taken up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.
About 3% of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites may have failed. That’s not too bad, but across a 42,000-spacecraft constellation it could spark a crisis.
SpaceX, Falcon 9, Artificial satellite, United Launch Alliance
World news – GB – Around 3% Of SpaceXâs Starlink Satellites Have Failed, Astronomer Says