There is rising concern about space sustainability as thousands of satellites are set to come into low Earth orbit (LEO) in the coming years.
The likelihood of collisions on orbit grows as the regime becomes more crowded, and the problem is exacerbated by space debris and dead satellites that remain on orbit for years after they end operations.
“If you look at the (European Space Agency) report that’s produced every year, in LEO we’re not even getting 60% decommissioning as per regulations today. We need to get much, much higher,” Mark Dickinson, deputy chief technology officer and vice president, space segment at satcom provider Inmarsat, said Thursday during the GVF webinar “Space Sustainability: Is it Too Late?”
“It’s really important that we change what’s happening at the moment, because we have standards but they’re not being met,” Dickinson added.
The Federal Communications Commission in September adopted a new rule requiring operators to deorbit satellites within five years of ending operations, significantly earlier than the current 25-year requirement. Many companies praised the new rule and are already building their satellites to deorbit sooner. The Space Development Agency, which is building a LEO constellation made up of hundreds of satellites, said the new FCC ruling would have no impact on their plans since the agency’s satellites were already designed to deorbit within the timeframe.
Tackling the flood of constellations
The government has become increasingly vocal about addressing crowding in LEO, with the U.S. Space Force calling for increased regulations from the international community and the FCC establishing a new Space Bureau to tackle the flood of satellite constellation applications.
However, there are currently no real repercussions for companies failing to decommission satellites, Dickinson said.
In addition, not every deorbiting attempt is successful. With large constellations there will likely be a number of satellites that remain stuck on orbit longer, which is why on-orbit transport services are critical to space sustainability, said Maurizio Vanotti, vice president of new markets at OneWeb.
Just like a tow service removes broken vehicles from the road, on-orbit servicing spacecraft can collect rogue dead satellites and haul them out of orbit. That’s “the real gamechanger,” Vanotti said, noting OneWeb satellites are built with docking features that enable other spacecraft to latch onto them for that purpose.
However, operators shouldn’t rely on on-orbit towing services, Dickinson said, adding that debris removal will be important for space sustainability, but it cannot be used as an excuse to lower the reliability of self-deorbiting. It should be turned to only if all other deorbiting efforts have failed, he noted.
“Yes, [on-orbit towing and debris removal] has a place, but it really should be for that very last resort or remediation of getting that object out of orbit safely,” Dickinson said.
That said, commercial operators — including OneWeb, SpaceX and others — have worked to develop best practices for space sustainability, Vanotti said. Operators need to be role models and practice what they preach, he added.