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“Mega-constellations” of satellites could lead to exponential rise in space junk

The number of space collisions between communication satellites is set to rise, according to scientists who say this will also cause a rise in the amount of space junk orbiting the Earth.

An increasing number of “mega-constellation” launches are expected, constituting thousands of satellites.

A decrease in the cost of the manufacture of satellites is set to lead to the deployment of hundreds or thousands into space from next year, creating a massive rise in the number of active satellites from the 1,300 currently in use.

Dr Hugh Lewis, senior lecture in aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton, has warned that a 200-year computer simulation has shown the creation of a mega-constellation could create a 50 per cent increase in the number of “catastrophic collisions” between satellites.

He said this would increase the amount of space junk in orbit, leading to the possibility of further collisions and the subsequent impact on the services provided by the satellites.

He said: “There has been a paradigm shift in the manufacturing of satellites. The cost of making a single communications satellite usually runs to hundreds of millions of pounds, but mass-produced satellites will potentially be much cheaper.

“The constellations that are due to be deployed from next year contain an unprecedented number of satellites and a constellation launched without much thought will see a significant impact on the space environment because of the increased rate of collisions that might occur.”

Dr Lewis’ study, funded by the European Space Agency, has created a series of guidelines to help prevent collisions, including decreasing the amount of time spent in low orbit after the end of a mission, making the satellites smaller and more lightweight, adding propulsion systems and deploying missions to remove faulty satellites.

Last year, the Richard Branson-backed start-up OneWeb began mass producing 900 satellites in order to create a global network for high-speed internet access.

The network is set to be 10 times larger than any previous satellite constellation and should start allowing users to access high-speed internet as early as 2019.

A pair of companies have also been researching technology that would allow refuelling and repairing satellites in orbit. 

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