SpaceX is actively pursuing measures to ensure the decay of its Starlink satellites is managed safely and sustainably, as exemplified in a recent document shared with the public.
Overall, the company’s approach is multifaceted, focusing on proactive deorbiting, design for demise, and transparency in operations.
Starlink satellites, which orbit at altitudes below 600 km, are designed to naturally deorbit within five years if they fail, thanks to atmospheric drag. This low Earth orbit selection significantly minimizes the risk of long-term space debris.
SpaceX enhances this natural decay process by proactively deorbiting satellites that show an elevated risk of becoming non-maneuverable, thereby reducing the number of potentially hazardous objects in space.
To date, SpaceX has initiated controlled deorbits for 406 satellites, which tracks with the estimates provided by Harvard astronomer Jonathan McDowell.
This process involves safely lowering satellites that are at the end of their operational life or identified as having issues that could lead to failure.
The controlled descent of these satellites is meticulously managed to ensure they pose no risk to other space assets or to people on the ground, as they fully burn up upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Back in early 2023, SpaceX was experiencing unknown issues with its newest Gen2 Mini satellites, forcing the company to deorbit a significant amount of those satellites.
The design of Starlink satellites prioritizes full demisability, ensuring that there is no risk to the public or the environment during deorbiting.
This commitment to safety and sustainability is part of a broader SpaceX strategy that includes sharing detailed orbital and decay information with other space operators, enhancing global space situational awareness.
Related: is Starlink dangerous to humans?
SpaceX’s transparent approach extends to its operations, with the company sharing high-fidelity position and uncertainty prediction information multiple times a day.
This not only aids in collision avoidance but also encourages other satellite operators to adopt similar practices, fostering a collaborative approach to space sustainability.
While proactive deorbiting means that SpaceX occasionally has to retire satellites that are still functional, the company views this as a necessary investment in the future of safe and sustainable space exploration.
More precisely, SpaceX shared that it aims to deorbit around 100 Gen1 satellites in the next coming weeks and months.
These satellites are currently operational and effectively serving users, yet the Starlink team has pinpointed a recurring issue within this subset of satellites that could elevate the risk of future failures.
But thanks to Starlink’s vertical integration with SpaceX, those satellites will be replenished fast. SpaceX is currently able to launch approximately 55 satellites per week or 200 per month.
Plus, these are the more potent Gen2 Mini satellites, so users shouldn’t expect any form of service degradation.