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New satellites could cause catastrophic space junk collisions

Brit scientist warns of increased hazards from new constellations

Boeing's concept illustration of a Deep Space Transport at Mars
Concept sketch of a Boeing satellite. File picture

Broadband satellites could lead to an explosion in the volume of space junk, a British scientist has said.

Dr Hugh Lewis, a senior lecturer in aerospace engineering at the University of Southampton, said that the rise in orbital traffic could create a 50 per cent increase in the number of collisions between satellites.

Such crashes would probably lead to a further increase in the amount of space junk in orbit, he told The Guardian.

Collisions between satellites in turn would lead to an increase in debris, causing an even greater risk to orbital satellites. Tech companies offering these satellites include Google, Facebook and SpaceX.

Dr Lewis said in a canned quote: "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."

The European Space Agency, which funded the research, is holding a conference on space debris in Germany this week. It is proposing guidelines that would make new satellites lower their altitude and burn up in the atmosphere once their missions are over.

"Under these conditions they would have to manufacture satellites that are reliable enough after five years of operations to reliably conduct this disposal manoeuvre," Dr Holger Krag of the agency told the newspaper. "Right now, under all the taxpayer-funded space flight we are doing today is only able to achieve 60 per cent of success rate for that manoeuvre. How can they be better under commercial pressure and with cheaper satellites? That's the worry we have." ®

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