In a bold move, SpaceX, led by tech billionaire and CEO Elon Musk, has publicly rejected a recent report by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that raises concerns about the potential dangers posed by the Starlink satellite constellation to humans on Earth. The report, submitted to members of Congress on October 5, 2023, paints a concerning picture of space debris and its impact on Earth. SpaceX, however, has vehemently refuted the findings, accusing the FAA of relying on flawed analysis.
In a letter issued on Tuesday, SpaceX defended its position, stating that the FAA’s report was based on a “deeply flawed analysis that falsely characterizes reentry disposal risks associated with Starlink.” According to SpaceX, their satellites are designed and built to safely demise during atmospheric reentry at the end of their life cycles. The company emphasized that their satellite disposal procedures are both effective and responsible.
Role of The Aerospace Corporation
The non-profit organization, The Aerospace Corporation, contributed to the FAA’s report and was accused by SpaceX of failing to account for the analysis regarding satellite disposal. The Aerospace Corporation responded to the criticism, acknowledging that their technical team is in communication with SpaceX to review and update the data. The organization explained that the FAA had approached them over two years ago to conduct an independent assessment of collective risks associated with satellite re-entry.
FAA’s Concerns and Projections
The FAA’s report raised alarm by suggesting that by 2035, if the expected growth of the Starlink constellation occurs and debris from Starlink satellites survives reentry, there could be one person on Earth expected to be injured or killed every two years. The report also estimated that the probability of an aircraft encountering space debris could be 0.0007 per year by 2035.
SpaceX’s Rebuttal and Data
In response, SpaceX presented its own data to challenge the FAA’s report. According to the company, since February 2020, they have deorbited 325 satellites, and no debris from these satellites has been found. This evidence stands in stark contrast to the FAA’s concerns about space debris causing harm to people on Earth.
Aerospace Corporation’s Responsibility
The Aerospace Corporation, while acknowledging that Starlink satellites burn up in the atmosphere during reentry, pointed out that with thousands of satellites expected to reenter over time, even a small amount of debris could pose a significant risk. This stance suggests a concern for the cumulative effects of space debris, even if individual satellite disposal is effective.
SpaceX’s Critique of the Report
SpaceX’s rejection of the FAA report didn’t stop at their defense of their satellite disposal practices. The company also criticized the report for its exclusive focus on Starlink, neglecting to consider other satellite systems such as Amazon’s Project Kuiper, OneWeb, and various Low Earth Orbit (LEO) systems being developed and deployed by China. SpaceX argued that this omission led to an incomplete and skewed assessment of the risks associated with satellite constellations.
Starlink’s Dominance and Implications
The FAA’s report made a startling claim that by 2035, Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites could account for 85% of the expected risk to people on the ground and aviation. This suggests that the success of Starlink is poised to make it a dominant force in the satellite industry, potentially requiring more comprehensive and rigorous risk assessments.
As the controversy between SpaceX, the FAA, and The Aerospace Corporation unfolds, it is clear that the safety and environmental impact of satellite constellations in space will continue to be a matter of concern. A thorough and transparent evaluation of risks associated with these satellite systems is essential to ensure the safety of both aviation and the general public.