Space News - November 1, 2020

Upcoming large constellations in low Earth orbit are perhaps the most visible confirmation of the rapid innovation levels in satellite manufacturing and launch technology.

A mere decade ago, constellations of thousands of satellites, supported by manufacturing using three-dimensional printing technology, and rapid turnaround reusable launch vehicles would have been nearly unimaginable. Moreover, this technology portends to bring low-latency connectivity to masses of people who would otherwise be unconnected.

Governments are tempted to unquestionably support these technological marvels, along with the social benefits they herald. But just as governments closely scrutinize medical vaccines before approving them to mitigate the risks of broad harm, they must also carefully scrutinize strategies to mitigate orbital debris risk from the upcoming increase in launch activity, particularly in LEO.

Historically, orbital debris risk has never been factored into most space investment decisions, as investors have seen the risk as minimal. Only a handful or so of satellites have been damaged by orbital debris in the history of space.

However, in the future, orbital debris risk will be very different as operators launch constellations of 1,000-plus satellites in rapid sequence. Other issues, including lack of structural motivation to “do the right thing,” slow development of orbital debris removal technology, and lack of sufficient regulation, create a recipe for inevitable high risk.