All About Space

SpaceX Starlink satellites responsibl­e for over half of close encounters in orbit

- Words by Tereza Pultarova

Operators of satellite constellat­ions are constantly forced to move their satellites because of close encounters with other spacecraft and pieces of space junk. And thanks to SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, the number of such dangerous approaches will only continue to grow. Starlink satellites alone are involved in about 1,600 close encounters between two spacecraft every week, according to Hugh Lewis, the head of the Astronauti­cs Research Group at the University of Southampto­n. These encounters include situations where two spacecraft pass within a distance of one kilometre (0.6 miles) from each other.

Lewis, Europe’s leading expert on space debris, makes regular estimates of the situation in orbit based on data from the SOCRATES (Satellite

Orbital Conjunctio­n Reports Assessing Threatenin­g Encounters in Space) database. This tool, managed by CelesTrak, provides informatio­n about satellite orbits and models their trajectori­es into the future to assess collision risks.

Lewis has seen a worrying trend in the data that reflects the fast deployment of Starlink. “I’ve looked at the data going back to May 2019 when Starlink was first launched to understand the burden of these mega constellat­ions ,” said Lewis. “The number of encounters picked up by the SOCRATES database has more than doubled, and now we are in a situation where Starlink accounts for half of all encounters.”

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Space debris is a cascading problem
Below: Space debris is a cascading problem

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