Editorial | OneWeb is Looking Proactive on Debris Question

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Aspiring global broadband services provider OneWeb is saying all the right things as it seeks to allay concerns that its planned 720-satellite constellation in low Earth orbit will exacerbate a growing debris problem there.

Speaking at an orbital debris symposium at the recently concluded 66th International Astronautical Congress in Jerusalem, OneWeb Fleet Operations Manager Mike Lindsay said the satellites will include extra fuel to deorbit themselves after retirement and, in recognition that some likely will fail prematurely, fixtures that future debris-clearing spacecraft could grab hold of. Moreover, he said, the satellites will contain no tungsten and minimal titanium to make sure that they fully disintegrate upon re-entry.

The additional fuel by itself would make the constellation, designed to provide Internet service worldwide, compliant with international guidelines stating that low-orbiting satellites should be deorbited no more than 25 years after retirement. Saying the guidelines are too lenient, Mr. Lindsay pledged that the OneWeb satellites would re-enter within five years of retirement.

Opinions differ as to the severity of the orbital debris problem and how best to deal with it, but few could credibly dismiss it altogether given the rapidly growing number of satellites being launched each year. Low Earth orbit in particular is seeing a population explosion driven by the cubesat revolution and the desire of more and more countries to plant their national flags in orbit.

Recent reports have given satellite operators, both government and commercial, mixed reviews on their adherence to the orbital debris guidelines.

Now come companies like OneWeb that plan to launch constellations with hundreds or even thousands of satellites in the next several years. SpaceX, which earlier this year secured nearly $1 billion in investment from search engine giant Google, has disclosed plans to launch some 4,000 satellites, a number that appears somewhat less outlandish considering the company’s demonstrated knack for doing what it sets out to do, no matter how ambitious.

Mr. Lindsay didn’t convince everyone at the symposium that the OneWeb constellation will be debris neutral. Skeptics said its sheer size and complexity will create severe congestion over the poles as well as constrain the company’s maneuvering options should it receive a collision warning from the U.S. Air Force. OneWeb says it already is working with the Air Force, which as operator of the Space Surveillance Network has assumed the role of the world’s space traffic cop, to facilitate collision avoidance warnings involving its system.

These are not trivial matters, and OneWeb, which hopes to begin launching in just two years, clearly has much work ahead of it to mitigate debris concerns that naturally accompany a constellation of unprecedented size. The good news is that the company, perhaps with an eye toward winning international regulatory approval, appears to be on top of the issue.