NASA has raised concerns about SpaceX's new Starlink satellites, including an increase of the risk of collision in orbit, in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The five-page letter was submitted to the FCC Tuesday (Feb. 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 submitted a proposal to the FCC to put 30,000 more Starlink internet satellites into orbit as part of a "Gen 2" Starlink system. There are currently about 1,800 operational Starlink satellites in orbit and there have already been several near-misses in orbit; one study has suggested Starlinks are responsible for half of all close encounters in low-Earth orbit.
With this track record, NASA has some serious reservations about SpaceX's proposed new fleet.
NASA has "concerns with the potential for a significant increase in the frequency of conjunction events and possible impacts to NASA’s science and human spaceflight missions," the agency stated in the letter, which was signed by Samantha Fonder, identified as NASA's representative to the Commercial Space Transportation Interagency Group.
"NASA wants to ensure that the deployment of the Starlink Gen 2 system is conducted prudently, in a manner that supports spaceflight safety and the long-term sustainability of the space environment," the letter adds.
According to the letter, NASA has significant concerns about whether or not SpaceX's automated collision avoidance system would be enough to cover the five-fold increase of objects in orbit. All of these thousands of new satellites will likely have an effect on both crewed and uncrewed missions in orbit, the agency says, due to an "increase in 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 more satellites passing within a rocket's planned flight path.
"NASA is also concerned with an increasing unavailability of safe launch windows, especially 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 foreseeably cause problems for current scientific missions. The new satellites could double the number of Hubble Space Telescope images that contain satellite streaks. That amount of interference now stands at 8%, the agency said.
Worse, these additional Starlink satellites could worsen the risk of interference with planetary defense surveys performed by ground-based telescope, which NASA uses to scan the skies for potentially threatening asteroids (no imminent celestial objects have yet been found for our planet.)
The agency, however, did not express explicit opposition to the FCC granting SpaceX a license for Starlink Gen 2, but instead said that such an expansion would require close coordination with other affected parties. SpaceX, which rarely responds to media inquiries, did not respond to a SpaceNews request for a response.
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace