NASA concerned about SpaceX’s new generation of Starlink satellites

NASA raised concerns about SpaceX’s new Starlink satellites, including an increased risk of in-orbit collision, in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

The five-page letter was submitted to the FCC on Tuesday, February 8, and was first reported in SpaceNews. The letter, which includes a separate one-page letter from the National Science Foundation, was sent on NASA’s behalf by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

SpaceX has submitted a proposal to the FCC to put 30,000 additional Starlink internet satellites into orbit as part of a “Gen 2” Starlink system. There are currently around 1,800 operational Starlink satellites in orbit and there have already been several near misses in orbit; one study has suggested that Starlinks are responsible for half of all close encounters in low Earth orbit.

With this record, NASA has serious reservations about the new fleet proposed by SpaceX.

Related: Launch of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite megaconstellation in photos

NASA has “concerns about the potential for a significant increase in the frequency of conjunction events and possible impacts on NASA science and human spaceflight missions,” the agency said in the letter, which was signed by Samantha Fonder, identified as the NASA representative to the Interagency Commercial Group on Space Transportation.

“NASA wants to ensure that the deployment of the Starlink Gen 2 system is conducted with caution, in a manner that supports spaceflight safety and the long-term sustainability of the space environment,” the letter adds.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches 49 Starlink internet satellites into orbit on February 3, 2022. (Image credit: SpaceX)

According to the letter, NASA has significant concerns about whether SpaceX’s automated collision avoidance system would be sufficient to cover the fivefold increase in objects in orbit. All of those thousands of new satellites will likely have an effect on manned and unmanned orbiting missions, the agency says, due to “increased conjunctions” or close encounters with other objects.

This not only creates and increases collision risk, but it also adds launch risk, as there would be fewer launch windows available due to thousands of additional satellites passing through a rocket’s planned flight path.

“NASA is also concerned about a growing unavailability of safe launch windows, particularly for missions requiring instantaneous or short launch windows,” the agency said, citing the Europa Clipper mission as an example.

SpaceX’s Gen 2 satellites will also pose challenges for current science missions. The new satellites could double the number of Hubble Space Telescope images containing satellite footage. That amount of interference now stands at 8%, the agency said.

Worse still, those extra Starlink satellites could increase the risk of interference with planetary defense readings taken by a ground-based telescope, which NASA uses to scan the skies for potentially threatening asteroids (no imminent celestial objects has yet been found for our planet).

The agency, however, did not express explicit opposition to the FCC licensing SpaceX for Starlink Gen 2, but instead said such an expansion would require close coordination with other affected parties. SpaceX, which rarely responds to media inquiries, did not respond to a request for a response from SpaceNews.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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