Thursday, 30 May 2019

Numbers: the SpaceX Starlink constellation in perspective with what is currently orbiting earth

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The image above was taken by me in the evening of May 28 with a Canon EOS 60D and Samyang 1.4/85 mm lens. It shows a part of the now already dispersing "train" of SpaceX Starlink objects. They briefly flared, one by one, while passing north of Corona Borealis.

In this post, I want to put in perspective what adding 12000 Starlink objects to the current population of satellites orbiting Earth means.

Quite some numbers are floating about in articles and on internet, concerning current numbers of objects orbiting Earth. I made a tally this morning, including both classified and unclassified objects. Datasources were the database of classified objects maintained by Mike McCants; CSpOC's satellite catalogue for all unclassified objects; and the UCS Satellite database for the number of operational satellites. Numbers given in the diagrams in this post are rounded numbers.

A number of  "44000" is floating around the internet regarding the number of objects orbiting earth currently. This figure is wrong: CSpOC is tracking some 23000 objects of which some 18000 are well-tracked and can be indentified as to origin. This excludes, of course, objects that are not well-tracked, or are not tracked at all (e.g. because they are very small), the exact number of which is unknown. In the remainder of this post, we will restrict us to the ones that are known. These are generally objects larger than 10 cm.

In addition, our amateur network tracks some 300 additional "classified" objects.

The "44000" figure comes from the fact that the catalogue numbers (the unique identifiers given to each object) have now added up to 44306 entries: however, this concerns all objects catalogued since 1957, including many objects that have since re-entered into the atmosphere.

So the correct number to go with for objects currently in orbit around Earth and well-tracked, is slightly over 18300 objects.

Of these 18300, about 5500 are payloads, both operational and defunct. The UCS database currently lists some 2000 operational payloads, leaving 3500 defunct payloads.

In addition to operational and defunct payloads, there are some 2000 spent rocket boosters orbiting our planet. The remainder, almost 11000 objects, concerns other space debris (including sometimes very small objects, only detectable by radar).

Here I have visualized these basic data in the form of a pie-diagram:

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So, in perspective to these numbers for the current population of Earth-orbiting objects, what will be the result of the addition of  the 12000 planned objects in the Starlink constellation? How does their number compare to the other objects?

In the pie diagram below, you can see that adding 12000 Starlink objects would mean they would represent about one third of all objects orbiting Earth:

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In the diagram, I have lumped payloads and rocket stages as these generally represent larger objects, and put the rest into "other debris". The latter category includes very small objects, fragments from exploded rocket stages and disintegrated satellites. The diagram includes objects in geostationary orbit.

Starlink will operate in Low Earth Orbit. Musk's plan is to launch 1600 satellites to an operational altitude of 550 km; another 2800 to an operational altitude of 1150 km; and a whopping 7500 to an operational altitude of 340 km.


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When we only count objects with a perigee below 1150 km, the topmost orbital altitude shell of the proposed Starlink constellation, there are currently some 13800 objects orbiting up to these altitudes. Adding 12000 Starlink objects would almost double the population total.

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When we only count objects with a perigee below 550 km, which includes the lower and middle of the three orbital altitude shells of the proposed constellation, some 2900 objects are currently orbiting up to these altitudes. Adding almost 9100 Starlink objects (the sum of the lower and middle shell objects), would mean that about three quarter of the resulting population would be Starlink satellites (!).

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In other words: the amount of objects added by Starlink, compared to the current population of objects, is certainly significant, especially where it concerns the lower parts of Low Earth Orbit.

Below 550 km, the population would increase to three times as much as currently - and this includes all very small debris pieces that can only be observed by radar in the tally. If we restrict the comparison to the larger objects, it means an at least five times increase in object number. That is truely significant.

With these massive additions by just one company, the question arises whether some kind of regulation is in order, e.g. through the UN. If not, we allow one company to, basically, take over and massively dominate Low Earth Orbit. There are all kinds of ramifications: like, will current Space Tracking Networks be able to deal with the increased detection load on their networks? (if not, space will become less safe).  What will this do to our night sky? Etcetera.

(with regard as to what might be the effect to our night sky, I refer to this twitter tread by Cees Bassa, who has cracked some numbers as to visibility)

It seems to me that the World, the international community as a whole instead of one US corporation,  should have some say into this. I am otherwise a fan of Elon Musk, who undoubtedly has given space exploration and space technology a new impetus and good shake-up: but concerning Starlink, this all seems not well thought out to me.

The Starlink "train" on 28 May 2019. Click to enlarge

3 comments:

RdP said...

And there's no mention about the failures...

Situation is worrying even with a 100% of success missions, but what about the errors?

on this quarterly orbital debris https://www.orbitaldebris.jsc.nasa.gov/quarterly-news/pdfs/odqnv22i3.pdf at page 4 the projections gave us a worst scenario

Theresa williams said...
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