SpaceX Starlink satellites threatened by Russian space junk

SpaceX recently reported that Russian space debris was on a collision course with SpaceX Starlink satellites. Researchers documented over 6,000 near-misses.

The debris was created in 2021 when Russia used an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) to destroy the defunct 2,000kg Cosmos 1408 satellite, launched in the Soviet era. The explosion created around 1,500 pieces of space debris, now orbiting between 300 and 1,100 km above Earth. According to the US Space Command, this debris “will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris over time.”

The near collisions were discussed at the Small Satellite Conference in Utah last week. Dan Oltrogge, chief scientist at COMSPOC, reported that debris from the destruction of Cosmos 1408 is causing an increase in close approaches, or "conjunction squalls." COMSPOC tracked over 6,000 squalls within 10km of Starlink satellites, threatening 841 of their 2,748 satellites in low-Earth orbit.

Russia made headlines again earlier this year when from the same debris “endangered” the International Space Station (ISS), resulting in an avoidance manoeuvre. The ISS crew had to take cover in their escape capsule as the debris cloud passed.

It must be noted that SpaceX’s hands aren’t exactly clean when it comes to space debris. Earlier this month, a sheepherder in rural Australia discovered a large piece of space debris from SpaceX’s Crew-1 Dragon spacecraft. The debris was said to be from the spacecraft’s trunk, which transports the spacecraft's solar panels and allows unpressurized cargo to be transported to the ISS.

Space debris, also known as ‘space junk’, is a growing problem in the space sector. As of April 2022, the European Space Agency reported over 30,000 pieces of debris with a mass of over 9,000 metric tons. Debris collisions have already caused significant damage to important satellites, and with more launches taking place than ever before, the probability of collisions is increasing. The probability of any satellite in low Earth orbit colliding with a piece of debris over 1cm is now 50% in a year.

With close calls like this becoming a more regular occurrence, it’s clear that something needs to be done about the space junk problem. Experts are currently developing innovate methods to clean up space with exciting projects like Astroscale’s ELSA-d, a spacecraft that uses a magnetic capture system to capture debris, already reporting successful tests.

As the threat posed by space debris becomes greater, the sector looks to these companies for a solution before it reaches breaking point.