Since 1957, humans have sent about 8.500 satellites, probes, landers, crewed spacecraft, cargo craft, and space station flight elements to orbit and beyond, according to The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, as reported by SpaceNews. Of that amount, more than 4.000 are satellites launched by Starlink in the last five years.
A division of Elon Musk-founded SpaceX, Starlink’s purpose is to create a constellation of low-Earth-orbit satellites to provide high-speed, low-latency internet access all around the world, especially in rural areas where wired internet is not available.
After having successfully sent the first satellites to orbit in 2019, Starlink has steadily launched thousands more in the following years. Last year, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the launch of 12.000 additional satellites, but Starlink’s plans involve a mega constellation of 30.000 satellites in total.
Having now over 1.5 million subscribers, and adding around 3.500 customers per day, Starlink’s success is now attracting competition from other companies and space agencies. But an overpopulated low orbit is a concern for astronomers, for whom astronomic observations are becoming increasingly difficult due to the number of satellites in space.
Starlink’s Meteoric Rise
Starlink’s parent company SpaceX was founded by billionaire Elon Musk in 2002 to manufacture and launch rockets to space.
Its model of advanced technological breakthroughs in space transportation, and of partially reusable rockets, has made space exploration much more affordable in a short period of time. It has thus helped create a recent surge in private capital injection into the space economy business.
Starlink was first announced in 2015, and by 2017 (not yet having made any launches) anticipated $30 billion in revenue per year by 2025, according to TechCrunch.
Since its initial launch in 2019, which sent the first 60 satellites into low orbit (between 280 and 340 miles from Earth), it has created the biggest satellite network in history.
Recently, Starlink upgraded its satellites to a second version, now having four times more broadband capacity than the first model. They are now equipped with Argon Hall thrusters that allow them to effectively maneuver in orbit.
By 2020, it was launching an average of six satellites per day, and in 2023 alone, it has already done more than 30 launches so far.
Competition And Space Traffic
However, Starlink’s success has attracted competition from rival companies and different government space agencies. Amazon’s own satellite initiative, called Kuiper project, has already protested Starlink’s plans for more satellites before the FCC, as reported by Business Insider.
The European Union now has plans to build its own mega constellation of satellites to rival Starlink, called IRIS. It announced the project in November 2022 and it secured 2.4 billion euros in European funding.
Similarly, China is preparing to launch the first satellites of its own mega constellation, which will eventually put 13.000 new satellites into low orbit.
All these initiatives are configuring a fruitful space economy where many players are competing in the skies. However, the overcrowding of Earth’s orbit with satellites is worrying NASA and other members of the scientific community about dangers in space transportation and observation.
Recently, Hubble telescope’s astronomical observations were found to have increased interference by Starlink’s satellites, as reported by Space.com. A recent paper published by Nature made a case for Space Environmentalism, and argued for Earth’s orbits to be considered a public ecosystem, much like oceans and the atmosphere.
“We should consider damage to professional astronomy, public stargazing and the cultural importance of the sky, as well as the sustainability of commercial, civic and military activity in space,” the paper states.
If plans for more satellites are approved, Starlink’s mega constellation alone (without its potential competition) would put seven times more human-made objects in orbit than the entire humanity has done so far.