SpaceX’s rapidly growing fleet of Starlink Internet satellites now accounts for half of all active satellites in Earth orbit.
On February 27, the aerospace company launched 21 new satellites to join its Starlink broadband fleet. According to an analysis by astronomer Jonathan McDowell using data from SpaceX and the US Space Force, the total number of active Starlink satellites has reached 3,660, or about 50 percent of the nearly 7,300 active satellites in orbit.
“These large low-orbiting internet constellations came out of nowhere in 2019 to dominate the space environment in 2023,” says McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. industrialization of low orbit”.
SpaceX has been launching Starlink satellites since 2019 with the goal of bringing broadband internet to remote corners of the globe. And just as long, astronomers have warned that bright satellites can spoil their view of space, leaving streaks in telescope images as they fly past.
Even the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits more than 500 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, is vulnerable to these satellite streaks, as well as those coming from other satellite constellations. Between 2002 and 2021, the percentage of Hubble images affected by light from low-orbiting satellites increased by about 50 percent, astronomer Sandor Kruk of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and colleagues reported March 2 in the journal Nature Astronomy .
The team found that the number of images partially blocked by satellites is still small, rising from nearly 3 percent of images taken between 2002 and 2005 to just over 4 percent between 2018 and 2021 for one of Hubble’s cameras. But now there are thousands more Starlink satellites than in 2021.
“Part of the images [Хаббла], received by satellites, is currently small with little impact on science,” Kruk and his colleagues write. “However, the number of satellites and space debris will only increase in the future.” The team predicts that by the 2030s, the chance that a satellite will cross Hubble’s field of view while capturing an image will be between 20 and 50 percent.
The sudden jump of Starlink satellites also poses a problem for space traffic, says astronomer Samantha Lawler of the University of Regina in Canada. All Starlink satellites orbit at the same distance from Earth, just over 500 kilometers.
“Starlink is the densest stretch of space that has ever existed,” Lawler says. Satellites constantly move away from each other to avoid collisions. And that’s a popular orbital altitude—Hubble is there, and so is the International Space Station and the Chinese Space Station.
“If there is any collision [між Starlinks]some failure, it can have an immediate impact on people’s lives,” Lawler says.
SpaceX launches Starlink satellites about once a week — on March 3, it launched another 51 satellites. And it’s not the only company launching a group of internet satellites. By the 2030s, there could be 100,000 satellites in low Earth orbit.
There are currently no international rules limiting the number of satellites a private company can launch or the orbits they can occupy.
“The speed of commercial development is much faster than the speed of legislative change,” McDowell says. “There needs to be an overhaul of space traffic management and space regulation in general to deal with these large-scale commercial projects.”