TITUSVILLE, Fla. — SpaceX plans to remove from orbit about 100 of its older Starlink satellites because of a design flaw that could cause them to fail.

In a statement Feb. 12, SpaceX said it would perform controlled descents of about 100 “early-version 1” Starlink satellites out of concerns that the spacecraft could fail in orbit and no longer be maneuver.

“These satellites are currently maneuverable and serving users effectively, but the Starlink team identified a common issue in this small population of satellites that could increase the probability of failure in the future,” SpaceX stated. The company did not elaborate on that issue or identify the specific satellites affected.

According to statistics maintained by Jonathan McDowell, SpaceX has 5,438 Starlink satellites in orbit, out of 5,828 launched to date. The oldest still in orbit are from an initial group of version 1 satellites launched in 2019 and 2020 that lacked visors added to later satellites intended to reduce the amount of sunlight they reflect, reducing their brightness. Of those 420 satellites, 337 remain in orbit.

SpaceX said the satellites being deorbited will lower their orbits gradually over about six months. “All satellites will maintain maneuverability and collision avoidance capabilities during the descent,” the company stated. “Additionally, these deorbiting satellites will take maneuver responsibility for any high-risk conjunctions consistent with space safety and sustainability best practices.”

The growth of the Starlink constellation, by far the largest in orbit, has triggered debate about space traffic management and space sustainability. There has been a push for new regulations to govern the growth of satellites and debris and ensure satellites are promptly deorbited at the end of their lives.

During a panel discussion at a space debris conference organized by the Saudi Space Agency Feb. 12, Ernst Pfeiffer, chief executive of German space component company HPS, called for new rules for deorbiting satellites within five years of their end of their lives, versus the 25 years previously endorsed by organizations like the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee, or IADC.

“This can be introduced tomorrow, a five-year deorbit time,” he said, after which more complex rules can be developed. “This is urgently needed and, amazingly, Elon Musk is introducing it already with SpaceX.”

Such regulations are likely to come at the national level, rather than through an international treaty, although non-binding guidelines from the IADC and the long-term sustainability guidelines adopted by the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space can be helpful.

“Non-binding does not mean non-legal in the sense that states can choose to implement these voluntary non-binding guidelines in their national regulatory frameworks,” said Peter Martinez, executive director of the Secure World Foundation, on another conference panel. “The benefit of having international consensus guidelines is that there is an agreed minimum international standard that, if widely implemented, helps to avoid the risk of divergent or fragmented regulations across jurisdictions.”

SpaceX added in its statement that the loss of the older satellites will not affect Starlink broadband services.  “Starlink’s customer experience will not be impacted” by the deorbiting of the older satellites, the company said. “SpaceX has the capacity to build up to 55 satellites per week and launch more than 200 satellites per month, which allows us to continually improve our system and make it more resilient.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...