Mission control at the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) cheered on Thursday at the successful launch of the country’s latest communication satellite. ISRO now plans to share satellite manufacturing and data processing technology with private Indian firms so that they can tap the growing market for small commercial satellites. A recent report by Euroconsult estimates that $255 billion will be spent globally on the manufacture and launch of 1,400 satellites through 2024. The commercial space industry has already grown more than sixfold in the last five years to include over 800 companies. In particular, small satellites (often working together in “constellations”) are becoming increasingly popular as technology improves and shrinks.
Small satellites beaming high-speed internet to previously-underserved parts of the world could enable profitable new business models. Some have likened the advent of reliable, space-based internet service as a second coming of the first internet boom, noted Fortune. The Euroconsult report includes 350 satellites to be deployed by ten commercial constellations for communication or Earth-imaging. But its total excludes two “mega-constellation” projects. OneWeb, a global consortium that includes the Virgin Group, Bharti Enterprises, and Qualcomm, aims to launch 648 small satellites. Similarly, SpaceX is planning to launch satellites in low-Earth orbit for speedier internet service, with the total eventually reaching 4,000.
According to NewSpace Global’s CEO Richard Rocket, roughly $2.5 billion has been invested in small satellites over the past decade (excluding OneWeb’s estimated $2 billion mega-constellation). Nearly half of that amount has come into play in the last 12 months—Google and Fidelity announced in January that they will invest $1 billion investment in SpaceX to help it build its satellite mega-constellation. “Almost regardless of business model, those Fortune 500s today who ignore what small sats are doing… they’re going to be on the wrong end of financial evolution in the next decade,” Rocket added.
The main potential bottlenecks in the growth of satellites are inadequate launch vehicles. The June 28 launch failure and disintegration of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket (which was carrying 8 Planet Labs imaging satellites) spotlighted this unfortunate but not infrequent trend. In fact, a major reason why ISRO was overjoyed at its successful Thursday launch was that three of its four earlier attempts had failed. Rocket emphasized “if we do not see launches happening at a much higher rate than it is now—and more of these launch vehicles coming online and becoming operational—we’ll see a stalling. Investors won’t get the returns they want, and investment will slow down.”
However, there is another disaster waiting to happen. Euroconsult states that most of the commercial satellites to be launched over the next decade will be to replace communications capacity currently in orbit. That means more satellites will cease functioning, and if they don’t crash down to Earth, they will simply stay in orbit. Thus exacerbating the problem of space debris.
Space debris is entirely the result of launching and operating satellites and spacecraft. “Scientific studies have shown that there’s a total of around 500,000 pieces of space debris in orbit that is between 1 and 10 cm in size, but too small to track regularly,” said Brian Weeden, technical advisor at the Secure World Foundation. He estimated that global organizations are tracking 22,000 human-generated objects in orbit around the Earth larger than 10 cm (about 4 inches). Of that, only about 1,500 are functional satellites, while the rest are dead satellites, spent rocket stages, and other fragments posing huge risks. “Space debris bigger than several centimeters can completely destroy a satellite if they collide. Space debris between one and several centimeters can severely damage a satellite, perhaps rendering it inoperative or taking out key systems,” Weeden added. “The number of collision avoidance maneuvers per satellite are dramatically increasing according to satellite operators,” said Luisa Innocenti, who heads up the European Space Agency (ESA)’s CleanSpace initiative, which aims to limit and remove debris from orbit.
In 2007, the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) published a set of technical guidelines to minimize the creation of new space debris. A crucial one was setting the standard for satellites to return to the atmosphere after reaching end-of-life at 25 years. However, Via Satellite reported that even with the U.N. endorsing these guidelines and several countries making debris mitigation laws mandatory over the last few years, Innocenti believes these recommendations are still insufficient. Industry, she claimed, has been brushing off the guidelines and governments have excessively granted waivers to bypass them. The ESA is working with large firms like Airbus and Thales Alenia Space as well as small startups with innovative ideas to validate viable solutions, so that the end-life of a satellite is taken into firms’ market considerations. Hopefully the collaboration of the ESA will overcome firms’ reluctance to apply the previous IADC guidelines that might result in increased costs in this highly competitive industry.
And indeed the technological challenges to properly dispose of satellites are formidable. According to the ESA, small micro-satellites in low-Earth orbit do not always have full orbital control capability while larger satellites require extra propellant and a high-thrust engine to ensure a controlled re-entry, increasing their mass and cost. CleanSat favors a “design for demise” approach to ensure satellites will burn up in the atmosphere after their operations cease, without the need for targeted reentry. Just as important are the ESA’s remediation efforts, which are still in the early stages. These projects also face enormous technological hurdles — fast-moving space debris needs to be caught with a net, robotic arm, or a harpoon and then dragged back into the atmosphere so that it either burns up or falls into the ocean.
That said, if the global satellite industry is to meet those ambitious growth predictions, addressing space debris needs to become a top priority. A collision would create more objects flying off in different directions, increasing the chances of additional collisions, and so on. It is a global collective action problem, where negligence on the part of any firms or governmental space agencies puts all other actors at risk. Developing and integrating the necessary precautions regarding space debris into satellite design, as well as contributing to remediation efforts for the benefit of all, will increase costs across the board. But the world needs to pay up if it’s to avoid learning the hard way about protecting its satellites.