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Satellite megaconstellations

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Above our heads, artificial satellites are waging war on the stars. On Earth, a handful of business leaders plan to put hundreds of thousands of satellites into low orbit, in addition to the 50,001 satellites already launched. In total, these satellites will be ten times more numerous than the stars visible to the naked eye.

In a previous article, I described communications satellite mega-constellations and discussed astronomers’ deep concerns about them. I myself am a (very) amateur astronomer. What I learn about the environmental impacts of this unprecedented space program continues to shock me.

Elon, honey, can you take the trash out of space tonight?

Since the 1950s, communications satellites have been used for long distance transfer of voice and data. Most satellites never return to Earth. At the end of their useful life, they become waste. Today, millions of objects orbit the Earth. Most of them no longer work: they are space junk.

Moriba Jah2 of the University of Texas explains that some of this waste is as tiny as a speck of paint; some are as big as a school bus. Less than one percent of these objects are tracked. Objects smaller than 10cm simply cannot be tracked.

Moving at several kilometers per second (tens of thousands of kilometers per hour), space junk sometimes collides or explodes, creating even more dangerous, small and untraceable objects that can damage useful satellites or spacecraft. inhabited.

There are no traffic rules in space3. In 2020, the manned International Space Station (ISS) nearly suffered three catastrophic collisions with space debris. Satellite operators do not always share their information and their opinions on the location of space debris may differ.

In 2019, a European Space Agency (ESA) satellite was at risk of colliding with one of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, but the agency was unable to reach Starlink operators. The ESA satellite therefore had to change orbit, quickly. When space becomes cluttered with too much debris, a series of collisions occur.

Each collision produces more debris, which further increases the risk of collisions. This phenomenon called “Kessler’s syndrome” 4 can only be managed by actively

clearing our space waste.

A mass of waste The May 1, 2021 report from the scientific journal Nature reveals that each of Elon Musk’s satellites only works for five to six years, which is less than a personal computer. Musk swears he’ll get his trash out by re-entering his dead satellites into the atmosphere to turn them to dust.

Thus, alongside its 42,000 satellites planned in operation, expect at any time 4,200 additional satellites in deorbit. Also expect 8,400 new satellites launched each year to replace those that no longer work. Each day, Starlink alone will be able to produce about six tons of electronic waste that reenters the Earth’s atmosphere.

This litter increases the risk of cascading collisions with untracked debris. Indeed, “a major fragmentation event of a single satellite could affect all [satellite] operators in LEO [Low Earth Orbit]”.1

Make a wish when a satellite falls!

When satellites re-enter the atmosphere, relatively heavy parts can fall, potentially injuring people, wildlife and damaging property. NASA recommends a risk of human casualties of less than 1/10,000 per satellite re-entry.

However, launch permits do not take into account the cumulative or combined risks posed by the launch of hundreds of thousands of satellites. Operators do not always comply with safety standards1. Scientists find that pieces larger than 10 cm may not completely disintegrate when they fall back to Earth5.

Yet SpaceX says their next-generation satellites will completely disintegrate into dust. No official agency has verified this claim and no agency can require other satellite operators to turn their debris back into dust. If you see a satellite fall, wish everyone stays safe!

Chemicals and ozone layer depletion

During a satellite launch, rocket fuel (e.g. hydrazine) and rocket parts containing hazardous substances can fall back into the ocean and harm marine life.1 In the upper atmosphere, high temperatures created by friction lead to the formation of ozone-consuming chemicals6.

Ozone provides a protective layer around the Earth. Depleting it increases people’s exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun and the risk of skin cancers. Forty years ago, NASA scientist Michael Zolensky was looking for comet and asteroid dust in the upper atmosphere.

He mostly found rocket exhaust particles, spacecraft protective paints and aluminum. Do space engineers know that? Martin Ross of The Aerospace Corporation confirms a lack of interdisciplinary communication.

Scientists and engineers need to talk to each other, but “that usually doesn’t happen.” Starlink’s average daily satellite waste (six tons) will significantly increase aluminum deposition in the stratosphere7.

When the aluminum in satellite boxes burns, aluminum oxide (alumina) is formed and can deplete the ozone layer. Would wooden satellite boxes (developed in Japan) be less harmful? But it is solid-fuel rockets that cause the most damage to the ozone layer, due to their emissions of hydrogen chloride and alumina1.

Weather forecast and global warming

The deployment of 5G telecommunications networks that use millimeter wave frequencies on the Earth’s surface could significantly disrupt satellite weather and climate observations8. In addition to Earth-based 5G radio frequencies, even higher frequencies used by future satellite constellations could interfere with weather observations.

Facebook’s constellation is still experimental, but it could use frequencies close to 88.2 gigahertz, which weather observation satellites9 currently use. Space launches have significant potential effects on global warming10.

Some satellite launchers such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket consume liquid kerosene and release soot (black carbon). Solid fuel rockets produce alumina particles. All this increases the greenhouse effect. Global warming from kerosene rockets has been modeled for 1,000 annual rocket launches for a decade.

Scientists find that the greenhouse effects of these kerosene rockets are comparable to emissions from aviation. SpaceX’s most powerful Starship rocket ever built, fueled by liquid methane, can launch 400 Starlink satellites at the same time.

Burning methane also produces soot that can increase global warming. Finally, liquid rocket fuels can impact cloud formations and the Earth’s climate.

Radiation on Earth and above the Earth

The magnetosphere (the magnetic envelope surrounding the Earth) protects our planet from the radiation of solar and cosmic particles. What would be the impact of microwave radiation emitted by satellites on the magnetosphere?

The Van Allen belts surround and protect the Earth with electrical charges. Could microwave radiation emissions from satellites drain electrons from the Van Allen belts in the atmosphere and alter its electrical properties?

How are Schumann resonances, the electromagnetic “heartbeats” of the atmosphere to which living things on Earth are tuned, affected by emissions from satellites? Satellites emit massive amounts of microwave radiation day and night from the magnetosphere and through the atmosphere.

What effect does this have on the magnetosphere and the electromagnetic balance of all life on Earth? Shouldn’t experts in the field study these consequences before deploying other satellites? Very few studies look at the impacts of millimeter waves on plants and animals10.

Therefore, it is almost impossible to predict the effects on biodiversity of tens of thousands of satellites emitting millimeter waves. As long as deployments continue, we risk further accelerating biodiversity loss. Unlike terrestrial networks, satellite constellations will radiate even in areas with low population density.

Humans and wildlife will no longer have any place to escape microwave radiation or its potentially harmful effects. Earth’s gigantic electrical circuit allows a permanent flow of electrons from the ionosphere to the planet’s surface, and back to the ionosphere when lightning strikes.

According to Eastern medicine, this electric current flows through our chakras and meridians. The potential health effects of satellites interfering with the Earth’s natural electromagnetic fields have not been studied.

Who is in charge ?

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty defines the responsibility of countries for the consequences of launching rockets from their soil. Despite good intentions, this treaty allows nations and corporations to fill space with an unlimited number of space objects.

We need limits, regulation and oversight, yet the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) endorses unbridled deployments. The ITU only prohibits new equipment from interfering with existing equipment.

The first operator to be granted access to a specific frequency or orbit can continue to renew their license indefinitely and block other operators from accessing that frequency or orbit. The new ITU rules require an operator to put its satellites into service soon after the application is filed.

Such policies favor large companies capable of producing satellites industrially and meeting these deadlines. The United States has given Starlink nearly $900 million in government funds to provide internet coverage to rural users.

The company is also using taxpayer money to cover dense cities, suggesting public funding is supporting wireless technologies, rather than more energy-efficient and secure wired connections. The constant increase in space debris can be limited by the disintegration (deorbiting) of satellites in the atmosphere.

However, there are no binding rules for satellite operators. Current guidelines are outdated and inappropriate for mega-constellations. Aaron Boley of the University of British Columbia said these emerging mega-constellations will need better governance, and fast.

Could aerospace engineers assess and mitigate the cumulative risks of mega-constellations? Could the potential risks to the environment, climate and health be weighed against the risks associated with falling debris from satellites?

Is the ITU up to these tasks? What matters more: allowing rich corporations to build whatever they want, relentlessly, or respecting heaven and earth and limiting the growth of telecommunications?

A solar flare could cut the power

Solar flares11 are among the most violent events in our solar system. They occur when the sun’s magnetic field changes sharply and suddenly, emitting huge amounts of electrically charged particles at thousands of kilometers per second.

When a powerful solar flare hit Earth in 1859, it created a solar storm that set fire to North American telegraph offices and produced the aurora borealis over Hawaii12. If a similar eruption reached Earth today, it would knock out all satellites, as well as all satellite-dependent internet and banking systems.

Electricity grids could be cut off for months!13 In the year 774, a solar flare twenty times larger may have hit our planet. In 1989, a much lighter event caused a large-scale power outage lasting 9 hours in Quebec, and the satellites lost control.

While we can now predict major solar flares days before they hit us and preemptively cut power grids, satellites remain vulnerable.


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