SpaceX To De-Orbit Early Starlink Satellites Due To Increased Failure Risk

SpaceX announced that it plans to de-orbit approximately 100 early V1 Starlink satellites in the coming weeks. According to a Starlink press release, this controlled destruction of satellites is necessary to ensure responsible stewardship of space, and minimize the risk of collisions with other spacecraft in the future.

“SpaceX has invested heavily in ensuring the safety and sustainability of our launch vehicles, spacecraft, and satellites,” said a SpaceX spokesperson. “This includes exceeding regulations and sharing best practices with the industry.”

While all Starlink satellites are designed to naturally de-orbit within five years, SpaceX occasionally de-orbits those at increased risk of failure before the end of their normal lifespan. Starlink satellites typically descend in a controlled manner, a process that takes roughly six months. The satellites are designed so that they burn up entirely during reentry, posing virtually no risk to people or property on Earth.

Increased probability of failure

All the satellites SpaceX has scheduled for destruction are currently operational, helping to provide high speed, low latency internet to more than 2 million Starlink customers around the globe. An issue was identified in these 100 satellites that increases the probability of failure in the coming years.

Failure, in terms of space safety, refers to the risk of these satellites becoming non-maneuverable. Starlink satellites are maneuverable by design, able to mitigate potential collisions with other spacecraft. If SpaceX loses control of a satellite, risks of potential collisions increase, reducing space safety and sustainability.

Since these 100 V1 satellites have been identified as having a higher failure probability, proactively de-orbiting them now helps mitigate that risk. SpaceX did not give any further details as to the exact cause of the issue, or how it increases the future risk of them becoming non-maneuverable.

De-orbits are common for SpaceX

SpaceX has successfully de-orbited 406 satellites out of the more than 6,000 launched. Proactive and controlled de-orbits are nothing new for the company. The upcoming de-orbit plan, however, is one of the largest in terms of the number of satellites being taken out of service at once.

Of the 406 satellites that have been de-orbited already, only 17 reached the point of being non-maneuverable. Uncontrolled satellites pose a high risk to other space systems, which is why Starlink is proactively ending service for the 100 V1’s with an unspecified issue.

SpaceX aims to promote space safety

SpaceX emphasizes transparency and collaboration in its sustainability efforts. They share detailed satellite position data with other operators, and encourage similar information sharing across the industry. This allows for better collision avoidance and responsible space use.

As more and more satellites enter Earth’s orbit, collaboration becomes critical for safety. Amazon’s Project Kuiper, for example, plans to launch a satellite constellation similar to Starlink. Between Starlink and Amazon, there will be thousands of satellites in low-earth orbit. Plans and procedures to mitigate collisions are essential if companies want to continue to expand satellite communications systems.

Impact on Starlink services

Despite losing 100 operation satellites before their expected service life is up, Starlink says users will not experience any service disruptions or performance degradation. SpaceX’s production capacity, currently at 55 satellites a week, ensures the constellation continues to expand, even as older satellites reach end-of-life.

SpaceX is launching more than 200 satellites per month, for some perspective. They currently have over 5,000 operational satellites. By the time the 100 old V1 satellites are all destroyed, more than that number will have replaced them in the constellation.

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