SPACE IS BECOMING more crowded. On December 3rd a Falcon 9 rocket made by SpaceX thundered into the sky. On board were 64 small satellites, more than any American company had launched before in one go. They have an array of uses, from space-based radar to the monitoring of radio-frequency emissions. One, designed by Trevor Paglen, an artist, will soon unfurl a 30-metre reflective structure that will shine down on Earth like an artificial star, visible to the naked eye.
These objects are part of the latest breed of low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellites, which are designed to whizz around the planet only a few hundred kilometres above its surface. This week’s launch is just a taste of what is planned. SpaceX and OneWeb, a communications firm, plan to launch satellites in their thousands, not hundreds (see article). The pair are set to double the total number of satellites in orbit by 2027.
That promises to change things dramatically on Earth. LEO satellites can bring internet connectivity to places where it is still unavailable or unaffordable. This will also be an enduring source of new demand for the space economy. Morgan Stanley, a bank, projects that the space industry will grow from $350bn in 2016 to more than $1.1trn by 2040. New internet satellites will account for half this increase.
For that to happen, however, three worries must be overcome. Debris is the most familiar concern. As long ago as 1978, Donald Kessler, a scientist at NASA, proposed a scenario in which, when enough satellites were packed into low-Earth orbits, any collision could cause a chain reaction which would eventually destroy all space craft in its orbital plane. The syndrome which bears Mr Kessler’s name weighs heavily on the minds of executives at the new satellite firms. Debris could conceivably render entire tracts of space unusable for decades. (Collisions have already happened. In 2009 an American satellite and a Russian one crashed into each other above Siberia, sending over a tonne of metal fragments swirling around the planet at thousands of kilometres per hour.)
Solutions exist. One is to grab malfunctioning satellites and pull them down into Earth’s atmosphere. Another is to monitor space more intensively for debris; a US Air Force programme called Space Fence is due to start in 2019. But technology is only part of the answer. Rules are needed to govern the safe disposal of old satellites from low-Earth orbit. The United States’ Federal Communications Commission is revising its regulations with this in mind. Other countries should follow suit.
Cyber-security is a second, long-standing worry. Hackers could take control of a satellite and steal intellectual property, redirect data flows or cause a collision. The satellite industry has been slow to respond to such concerns. But as more of the world’s population comes to rely on the infrastructure of space for access to the internet, the need for action intensifies.
The third issue follows from the first two. If a simple mistake or a cyber-attack can cause a chain reaction which wipes out hundreds of billions of dollars of investment, who is liable? Underwriters are studying the plans of firms that wish to operate large numbers of satellites. But there is a long way to go before the risks are well understood, let alone priced.
As space becomes more commercialised, mind-bending prospects open up: packages shuttled across the planet in minutes by rocket rather than by plane, mining equipment sent to asteroids, a stream of paying passengers launched to orbit and beyond. All that and more may come, one day. But such activities would raise the same questions as LEO satellites do. They must be answered before the space economy can truly blossom.