Can satellite megaconstellations be responsible users of space?

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For many in the space industry, so-called “megaconstellations” of communications satellites are the next big thing. Such systems have the potential to provide services from tracking planes and ships to offering broadband internet access more effectively than existing satellite systems or terrestrial alternatives. They offer a feel-good story about connecting the world as well as the promise of lucrative revenue streams.

“I’m really not a fan of just launching stuff in space to raise money and launching stuff in space that’s not finished or not ready and vetted,” OneWeb founder Greg Wyler said at the 2019 Small Satellite Conference in Logan, Utah, last month. Credit: Keith Johnson for SpaceNews

For others in the space industry, and some outside of it, megaconstellations are the next big thing to worry about. The prospect of thousands — potentially more than 10,000, depending on what systems actually get launched — of satellites in low Earth orbit raises concerns about collisions and the creation of orbital debris that could render such orbits all but useless for any satellite.

Then there are the unintended, and unanticipated, consequences of such systems. Astronomers discovered one of them shortly after SpaceX launched the first 60 of its Starlink satellites in May. In the days immediately after launch, the satellites were easily visible to the naked eye and showing up on long-exposure images as bright streaks. The thought of thousands of such satellites caused astronomers to shudder.

“I think it’s commendable and very impressive engineering,” said Megan Donahue, president of the American Astronomical Society, in a June statement about the Starlink satellites. “But I, like many astronomers, am very worried about the future of these new bright satellites.”

ONEWEB’S VISION OF “RESPONSIBLE SPACE”

One megaconstellation company is trying to address the criticism regarding such systems by explaining how it intends to safely operate in space, setting a standard it hopes others in the industry will follow.

In June, OneWeb rolled out a new initiative called “Responsible Space.” That effort included a website with a clever URL (www.responsible.space) that outlines its overall philosophy and specific approaches to safe operations in space. “We are dedicated to the idea that space is a shared natural resource which, if used responsibly, can help transform the way we live, work and interact,” the company states on that site.

“We always want to have a mindset towards sustainability and protecting the environment,” said Michael Lindsay, head of advanced mission design at OneWeb, discussing the Responsible Space initiative at the NewSpace 2019 conference in July.

Responsible Space represents “the practices and operations that we use, the designs, to make sure that we’re mindful of the potential impacts of utilizing space,” he explained. “The whole goal is to minimize the potential for harm to the environment.”

That approach has three distinct elements. One is what OneWeb describes as “responsible design and operational practices.” That includes the design of the satellites themselves to maximize reliability and maneuverability, as well as the operations of individual satellites and the overall constellation.

“We’re not launching something with a high chance of failure on orbit,” Lindsay said of the company’s satellites, which will undergo extensive testing before launch. “Once it fails in orbit, it becomes everybody else’s problem, and we don’t view that as acceptable.”

That approach also covers the design of the constellation. OneWeb chose an altitude of 1,200 kilometers for its satellites in part because there is a “nice minimum” in the population of existing satellites and debris at that latitude, he said, compared to more congested conditions at altitudes of 800 to 900 kilometers. (Another advantage is that the company needs fewer satellites at that higher altitude to provide global coverage.)

That concept extends to the disposal of satellites at the end of their lifetimes. “We have a high degree of reliability on the system that allows us to deorbit,” he said, such that it could still operate even if the rest of the satellite malfunctions. The goal is to remove a satellite from orbit within five years of the end of its mission, a fraction of the 25-year time frame in existing orbital debris mitigation guidelines.

A second element of Responsible Space is developing what OneWeb calls an “ecosystem” within the space industry that supports space sustainability. Lindsay argued that creating business opportunities for companies can be more compelling that simply forcing them to follow government regulations.

“If you develop an ecosystem that supports and promotes sustainable behaviors and even creates new business opportunities out of sustainability, then it becomes much more attractive,” he said.

For example, OneWeb plans to include a grapple fixture on its satellites in the event one of its satellites is unable to deorbit itself. “A third-party satellite could mate with our satellite, grab it and tug it out of orbit, even when our satellite is non-responsive,” he said.

Companies like Astroscale are developing technologies for what’s known as active debris removal, and such an interface could make their jobs easier. Lindsay said OneWeb plans to make schematics of that interface publicly available to support such companies as they develop their debris-removal spacecraft.

The final element of Responsible Space deals with collaboration with other space operators, from sharing information on the orbits of each others’ satellites to broader policy issues. It’s an acknowledgment that, no matter what OneWeb does, space sustainability will require cooperation with other companies and governments.

“Ultimately, if one company or operator is doing something that they think is responsible,” Lindsay said, “it’s not effective unless all the others are operating with the same amount of responsibility and awareness. Everybody has to be on the same page.”

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

OneWeb has taken a variety of approaches to promote Responsible Space. Besides conference appearances and its website, the company sponsored an invitation-only workshop by the Secure World Foundation in June about “norms of behavior” in space. However, a three-page summary of the report, released by Secure World in August, didn’t reveal any breakthroughs on promoting such norms.

The biggest evangelist for the gospel of Responsible Space, though, is OneWeb’s founder, Greg Wyler, who rarely misses an opportunity to bring up his company’s commitment to space sustainability. That included discussing it at the July 22 grand opening of the new factory in Florida that will soon produce two OneWeb satellites a day.

“We can’t go connect every school in the world and bring broadband to all the rural communities if we do it in an unsafe way,” he said, emphasizing OneWeb’s commitment to high-reliability satellites. “If we mess it up, if satellites start failing and they start crashing, there’s virtually no way to clean up the mess.”

The concept got an endorsement at the same event from Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. “We particularly commend OneWeb for your Responsible Space initiative,” he said in remarks before Wyler’s speech. He called OneWeb’s plans to promptly deorbit satellites “an elegant solution to a key part of the debris problem.”

Wyler’s strongest comments about Responsible Space came in a keynote he gave Aug. 5 at the annual Conference on Small Satellites at Utah State University. Speaking to a standing-room-only audience, he discussed space sustainability along with the history of OneWeb and its satellite deployment plans.

He used the speech, and the question-and-answer session that followed, to not only talk about OneWeb was doing but also to subtly — or perhaps not so subtly — criticize other companies that he felt weren’t taking the issue seriously.

“I’m really not a fan of just launching stuff in space to raise money and launching stuff in space that’s not finished or not ready and vetted,” he said. “You should not be throwing up hundreds and hundreds of kilograms of mass that just becomes a missile.”

He never named the company or organization he was referring to, but to many in the audience he appeared to be criticizing SpaceX. A company spokesperson reported a month after the first Starlink launch that three of the 60 satellites were had stopped communicating with the ground and “are no longer in service.” Around the time of that update, the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan announced it was investing in SpaceX, part of a round estimated to raise $310 million.

During that Q&A session, one person brought up astronomers’ concerns about the visibility of satellite megaconstellations based on the experience with SpaceX. “We’ve thought about it,” Wyler responded, describing steps the company took to minimize the brightness of its satellites in the night sky. “To not sit and think about longer-term ramifications of what you’re doing is just irresponsible.”

SpaceX argues that it, too, seeks to be responsible in space. “Due to their design and low orbital position, all five deorbiting satellites will disintegrate once they enter Earth’s atmosphere in support of SpaceX’s commitment to a clean space environment,” a SpaceX spokesperson said in June about the three satellites that failed and two others the company was intentionally deorbiting to test their propulsion systems.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk separately said the company was looking at ways to lower the albedo, or reflectivity, of future Starlink satellites to reduce their brightness, which decreased as most of the satellites moved into their higher operational orbits.

A SpaceX official, speaking on background, acknowledged that the initial batch of Starlink satellites was something of an experiment, pushing their capabilities to the limit. “Our learnings here, however, are key to developing an affordable and reliable broadband service.” Musk, before the launch, told reporters that it was possible some satellites could fail and even a “small possibility that all of the satellites will not work.”

Watching these developments and debates by OneWeb and SpaceX is someone with a lot of experience with satellite constellations: Matt Desch, chief executive of Iridium. Speaking at the Secure World Foundation’s Summit for Space Sustainability in late June, he said he, too, was worried about the reliability of satellites being launched by megaconstellations, fearing that some will malfunction and become “rocks” in orbit.

“What if you launch 1,000 satellites, 5,000 satellites, 12,000 satellites?” he asked. “Say, 10% create rocks. We are creating an environment that may make LEO an environment that isn’t sustainable.”

Desch, though, endorsed a modification to SpaceX’s FCC license before that first launch, allowing the company to operate its satellites at an altitude of 550 kilometers versus 1,150 kilometers as originally planned. SpaceX says that the lower altitude will reduce latency, but Desch noted that the lower altitude means the satellites will naturally deorbit within a few years even if they malfunction.

“I’m just thrilled they made that decision,” he said. “It’s a very responsible decision.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.