Starlink Satellites Leading Edge On-Orbit Debris Mitigation

The Starlink satellite broadband internet service from SpaceX is going to retire some of its early prototype satellites, but not in the usual way, which is to just leave them to form constellations of space junk.

SpaceX will perform propulsion-assisted orbital decay to bring them down into the Earth's atmosphere in a semi-controlled way.

To date, SpaceX has launched a total of 775 Starlink satellites, including early prototypes. According to astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who has been following the constellation's location closely, 47 Starlink satellites have been deorbited and reentered Earth's atmosphere. McDowell published a document on his website that states --"SpaceX is retiring the V0.9 constellation of 60 prototype satellites launched in May 2019. As of October 7, 39 of the 60 satellites have reentered," he wrote, "This is a new kind of reentry: it's not a normal impulsive deorbit and not a normal orbital decay, but something in-between. The Starlink satellites are, apparently, retired by continuously lowering their orbit with electric propulsion. Reentry occurs in a way similar to uncontrolled reentry - eventually the satellite is low enough and the ambient density is high enough that the vehicle heats, breaks up and is destroyed."

"The crucial point here is that the location of the breakup on the Earth is unpredictable and uncontrolled, in contrast to an impulsive deorbit where the rapid elliptical-orbit descent from a relatively high apogee means that reentry location is determined relatively precisely by the orbital parameters," McDowell explains. "These Starlink retirements should perhaps be termed `propulsion-assisted orbital decay'- they are more like normal uncontrolled orbital decay but speeded up by the thrusters," he wrote in his Space Report No.784 that he shared via Twitter.

SpaceX designed Starlink satellites to have a shorter duration life-span to ensure they do not cause space junk around Earth. "Starlink is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation, meeting or exceeding all regulatory and industry standards," the company states, "At end of life, the satellites will utilize their on-board propulsion system to deorbit over the course of a few months. In the unlikely event the propulsion system becomes inoperable, the satellites will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere within 1-5 years, significantly less than the hundreds or thousands of years required at higher altitudes." By intentionally deorbiting Starlink satellites, each burn up in Earth's harsh atmosphere which helps keep space clean of objects that will not be utilized.

In his 1978 novel The Fountains of Paradise, Arthur C. Clarke uses a somewhat more emphatic method - called Operation Cleanup to make sure that low earth orbit is clear of debris for the newly constructed space elevator which is the main subject of the novel:

Fortunately, the old orbital forts were superbly equipped for this task. Their radars - designed to locate oncoming missles at extreme ranges with no advance warning - could easily pinpoint the debris of the early Space Age. Then their lasers vaporized the smaller satellites, while the larger ones were nudged into higher and harmless orbits.

There have been a lot of suggestions about how to deal with the problem of space debris - take your pick!

  - Terminator Tether - EDT Solution To Space Debris Update
  - NanoTerminator Prevents Annoying Space Debris Build-Up
  - Debris Cloud From Chinese ASAT A Menace To Space Lanes
  - Space Debris Cleanup Suggestions Ignored
  - Laser Thruster 'Tractor Beams' For Space Junk
  - Space Junk-Eating Pod-Craft
  - CleanSpace One Goal: De-Orbit Space Debris
  - Space Debris Cleanup - Use Harpoons Or Gas Clouds?
  - Could Ground-Based Lasers De-Orbit Space Junk?
  - Australians To Zap Space Junk Ala Arthur C. Clarke
  - Tracking Spinning Space Junk
  - Zap Space Debris With Telescope Laser On ISS
  - New Laser Space Debris Clearing More Subtle Than Clarke's
  - Nifty New SDS Space Debris Sensor For ISS
  - Elon Musk Tweets Versions Of Clarke's Operation Cleanup

Via Tesmanian.

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