Last week, the CEO of Rocket Lab, a launch startup, said the company is already beginning to experience the effect of growing congestion in outer space.
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck said that the sheer number of objects in space right now — a number that is growing quickly thanks in part to SpaceX’s satellite internet constellation, Starlink — is making it more difficult to find a clear path for rockets to launch new satellites.
“This has a massive impact on the launch side,” he told CNN Business. Rockets “have to try and weave their way up in between these [satellite] constellations.”
Part of the problem is that outer space remains largely unregulated. The last widely agreed upon international treaty hasn’t been updated in five decades, and that’s mostly left the commercial space industry to police itself.
Rocket Lab set out to create lightweight rockets — far smaller than SpaceX’s 230-foot-tall Falcon rockets — that can deliver batches of small satellites to space on a monthly or even weekly basis. Since 2018, Rocket Lab has launched 12 successful missions and a total of 55 satellites to space for a variety of research and commercial purposes. Beck said the in-orbit traffic issues took a turn for the worst over the past 12 months.
It’s not clear if traffic from its own satellites has also caused frustrations for SpaceX. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Researchers have warned for decades that congestion in outer space could have devastating consequences. Kessler’s warning said that if space traffic becomes too dense, a single collision between two objects could set off a disastrous chain reaction that effectively turns the space around Earth into an extraterrestrial wasteland. One piece of debris would hit a satellite, and that impact — much like a car crash, except at orbital speeds upwards of 17,000 miles an hour — could generate hundreds, if not thousands, of new pieces of debris in its own right. Those new pieces could hit other objects in orbit, which would hit other objects, and on and on, until low Earth orbit would be saturated with an increasing amount of uncontrollable projectiles.
And any one of them could knock out a satellite, a launching rocket, or even an orbiting space station with humans inside.
SpaceX has said that it is determined to be a responsible steward of outer space. The company says it has equipped its Starlink satellites with the ability to automatically maneuver out of the way of other objects in orbit.
Jah hopes that more satellite operators and rocket companies, including SpaceX and Rocket Lab, will share real-time location data of their rockets and satellites to make the predictions more precise.
Neither company has done so.
Though there haven’t been any collisions this year, Jah warns, it could be only a matter of time.
That junk is practically impossible to clean up on a large scale. And it will take years, if not centuries, for it to naturally fall out of orbit.
The odds of avoiding disaster only become slimmer with each new satellite launch, Jah added. He remains optimistic that we can avoid Kessler Syndrome, even with swarms of satellites in orbit — but only if the SpaceXs and Amazons of the world agree to abide by certain rules and norms of behavior.
“Absent that the answer is no,” he said.
Beck, the Rocket Lab CEO, said he is frustrated that so much of the conversation about space junk revolves around the risk of in-orbit collisions, and there’s not as much conversation about how space traffic is already impacting the launch business. Satellite constellations can be particularly problematic, he said, because the satellites can fly fairly close together, forming a sort of blockade that can prevent rockets from squeezing through.
In Rocket Lab’s early days, Beck said, the company could pick a 30-minute timeframe on a given day and expect to reach orbit safely.
Lately, the company has had to pick “half a dozen separate launch windows because we’ve got to shoot up in between a train of” satellites, Beck said.
But Beck said he is concerned about how rapidly he’s seen traffic in space impact his own business. And he’s worried that new players in the space industry could be reckless.
“It’s just a race to orbit, and there’s just zero consideration for what environment we’ll leave behind,” he said. “Anyone flying a launch vehicle now needs to be really cognizant of their responsibilities.”
Policing outer space
Rocket Lab recently launched its own internal investigation into the traffic issue, hoping to determine how problematic it could be for the company as satellite constellations grow.
But for now, Beck said, Rocket Lab would benefit from more precise tracking of in-space objects. The US military serves as the world’s de-facto traffic cop because it operates an extensive databases of active satellites and space junk, but the military no longer wants that duty.
NASA and military officials are pressing for the US government to hand traffic management duties over to the Department of Commerce, which could work to establish a more comprehensive and internationally collaborative tracking and management system.
“We’re providing global space situational awareness and space traffic management to the world for free,” Bridenstine said at the hearing. “We need to take that data, combine it with commercial and international data to create a single integrated space picture that can be shared with the world. And and — by the way — the world needs to support us in that effort.”
Congress last year chose to commission a study of the issue rather than greenlight the reform.
Beck is also troubled by the fact that global regulation of space traffic has lagged far behind technology.
Recent attempts to update rules on the international stage have been “incredibly inspiring, but also incredibly depressing,” Beck said. Because even though countries were willing to come to the table, nothing has actually been agreed upon since the 1970s.
“We are very pro-democratizing space,” Beck said. “But it has to be done in a way that is responsible for each generation.”