21 votes

SpaceX submits paperwork for 30,000 more Starlink satellites

25 comments

  1. [25]
    Flashynuff
    Link
    Ugh. The sky doesn't belong to SpaceX or whatever other company decides they want to shove a few thousand satellites into space. These satellites have a global impact to astronomy and general...

    Ugh. The sky doesn't belong to SpaceX or whatever other company decides they want to shove a few thousand satellites into space. These satellites have a global impact to astronomy and general enjoyment of the stars -- why should one company get to profit at everyone else's expense?

    13 votes
    1. [4]
      balooga
      Link Parent
      As a non-astronomer and layperson, I'm probably not qualified to weigh in here, but I always do a double-take when I hear objections to putting new objects into orbit. These things aren't very...

      As a non-astronomer and layperson, I'm probably not qualified to weigh in here, but I always do a double-take when I hear objections to putting new objects into orbit.

      These things aren't very big, and humans aren't very good at conceptualizing the vastness of space. Even the orbital area immediately surrounding Earth is significantly larger than the surface area of the planet, and the available space increases with distance from it. I don't think it's a matter of running out of room, or anything remotely resembling orbital "clutter." I expect 30,000 satellites would barely be a drop in the bucket. It's not like this is some kind of metallic shell blocking out the sun or anyone's view of the stars.

      I do understand that man-made objects in space reflect sunlight and can interfere with astronomy. I've watched the ISS pass overhead and it looked more or less like a fast-moving star to my eyes. If I was trying to observe Saturn and my view was occasionally obstructed by a satellite, that would be annoying. It would probably also interfere with long-exposure night-sky photography, which is a shame too. I wonder if satellites could be designed to mitigate those problems, by painting them non-reflectively or affixing sunshields or something. Then at least they wouldn't be visible to the naked eye, though they would still occasionally occlude observation of more distant objects.

      I want to see humanity spread its wings and become a multi-planet species. I think we're rapidly running out of time. Projects like this one may be foundational for us to take the next steps. In my opinion, our need to travel the cosmos greatly outweighs the drawbacks of diminished terrestrial visibility. We have the technology, and are developing more technology, to perform significantly better astronomy from orbital telescopes and probes than we can do on the ground. It seems to me the only objections (real and significant as they are) boil down to frustrated hobbyists and NIMBY types.

      I don't mean that in an antagonistic way, I'm not sure how better to phrase it. I'm just not convinced, based on the limited knowledge I have, that the cons of deploying these satellites truly outweigh the pros.

      16 votes
      1. [2]
        spit-evil-olive-tips
        Link Parent
        I work at a satellite company. I see the emails we get when one of our satellites has a 0.0005% chance of colliding with another satellite. I am not a hobbyist. (and in terrestrial matters I'm...

        It seems to me the only objections (real and significant as they are) boil down to frustrated hobbyists and NIMBY types.

        I work at a satellite company. I see the emails we get when one of our satellites has a 0.0005% chance of colliding with another satellite. I am not a hobbyist. (and in terrestrial matters I'm much more of a YIMBY than NIMBY)

        The risk is real. It's a small risk, but it's a small risk of something extremely bad happening, so it deserves our attention. The issue is not blocking out a view of the sky, it's collisions. Specifically, Kessler Syndrome. All it takes is one errant collision to create a debris cloud that's a) travelling in erratic orbits and b) not under maneuvering control from the ground. That can easily start a chain reaction that causes more and more collisions, each creating more orbital debris.

        I want to see humanity become a multi-planet species as well. I grew up on sci-fi, and working on space-related stuff is my dream job. Kessler Syndrome would make that goal significantly harder, because it would give crewed spaceflight a mini "asteroid belt" to traverse around the Earth. Depending on the altitude of the debris cloud it could take the ISS out of commission. Or perhaps worse, it could strand the ISS on the other side of the debris cloud, making every resupply or crew exchange mission much more dangerous, and tempting us to simply abandon the station.

        On a more practical level, even though Kessler Syndrome would be unlikely to affect spacecraft above Low Earth Orbit, (such as GPS satellites and geostationary communications satellites) it would make it riskier to launch new spacecraft into those orbits, because each one would need to transit the debris cloud, so we'd face a long-term decline of our GPS system etc. You'd also lose a ton of access to satellite weather data, at exactly the time it's needed more than ever to gather data about climate change.

        I expect 30,000 satellites would barely be a drop in the bucket.

        Not even close:

        According to a 2018 estimate, some 5,000 remain in orbit. Of those about 1,900 were operational, while the rest have lived out their useful lives and become space debris.

        And this is 30,000 new satellites from one company. OneWeb wants to launch 2,000 (and that was back in 2017). Amazon wants more than 3,000.

        The biggest problem I have with this is that this is Silicon Valley bringing its "move fast and break things" and "regulations are for legacy companies, we're disruptive" attitude to space. This is from last year, about another startup in the "space internet" product space:

        The California-based start-up founded by former Google and Apple engineers

        Swarm launched the satellites in India last January after the FCC rejected its application to deploy and operate them, citing concerns about the company’s tracking ability.

        The investigation also found that Swarm performed unauthorized weather balloon-to-ground station tests and other unauthorized equipment tests prior to the satellites’ launch.

        Again, I work in this industry. One of the things you do not do is fuck with the FCC. Swarm got away with a ridiculous slap on the wrist and a promise they won't do it again.

        Amazon is also launching satellites. They've got datacenters around the world, they're sticking satellite antennas on the top of each of their datacenters, and they're hoping to eventually rent you an "EC2 satellite" instance by the hour.

        Couple of big problems with this. One is that Amazon is famously frugal. They even have it as one of their core principles. In the datacenters that Amazon runs, parts are failing all the time, because Amazon buys the absolute cheapest parts they can. That's fine, because they've built their software to be resilient to failures, and they've got people working 24/7 in the datacenters replacing things as they fail.

        They're going to bring that same attitude to spaceflight. They're building thousands of satellites. Some PM at Amazon has a spreadsheet of how many they expect to fail within the first 5 years. They're going to build them as cheap as they possibly can and just assume some of them will fail and oh well. Do you want Kessler Syndrome? Because that's how you get Kessler Syndrome.

        22 votes
        1. Wes
          Link Parent
          Are new regulations stricter about requiring satellites to de-orbit after they've outlived their usefulness? I thought that was a part of the plan for Starlink.

          According to a 2018 estimate, some 5,000 remain in orbit. Of those about 1,900 were operational, while the rest have lived out their useful lives and become space debris.

          Are new regulations stricter about requiring satellites to de-orbit after they've outlived their usefulness? I thought that was a part of the plan for Starlink.

          2 votes
      2. emdash
        Link Parent
        I agree with you completely about becoming a multiplanetary species! I'd just like to correct a common misconception in your comment, though: Ensuring a safe spaceflight environment in orbit,...

        I agree with you completely about becoming a multiplanetary species! I'd just like to correct a common misconception in your comment, though:

        These things aren't very big, and humans aren't very good at conceptualizing the vastness of space. Even the orbital area immediately surrounding Earth is significantly larger than the surface area of the planet, and the available space increases with distance from it. I don't think it's a matter of running out of room, or anything remotely resembling orbital "clutter." I expect 30,000 satellites would barely be a drop in the bucket.

        Ensuring a safe spaceflight environment in orbit, especially LEO, isn't an area or volume problem, it's an intersectionality problem. Objects in LEO orbit at 7.8 kilometres per second, and complete a single orbit around the Earth in just over 90 minutes, and usually complete 15+ orbits per day.

        It's far more important to look at the number of intersections you get between satellites than the area they have to themselves. With 40,000 satellites, you are almost ensured tens of thousands of 'close call' intersections per day; and that doesn't even factor in objects you don't own, satellites that are dead, and fragments of satellites you can't track. This is made even worse when these satellites are in polar orbit (which starlink will be, for the most part), because they all share many similar orbital areas above the antarctic and arctic.

        In short: this is Kessler syndrome on steroids waiting to happen; and ironically while you (and me both!) want humanity to become a multiplanetary species—Low Earth Orbit pollution could actually be one of the most significant barriers to preventing that.

        Given the alternative that exists (drone-based global internet), which is better in an immeasurable number of ways, I don't think the pros outweigh the cons at all. I want to see wireless global internet too, but this is the wrong way to go about it.

        15 votes
    2. [10]
      emdash
      Link Parent
      It's kind of insane, isn't it? I'm still of the opinion solar-powered high altitude drones at 90,000ft are the solution to the global broadband problem. They're cheaper to launch, reusable, are...

      It's kind of insane, isn't it? I'm still of the opinion solar-powered high altitude drones at 90,000ft are the solution to the global broadband problem. They're cheaper to launch, reusable, are better for the environment, can be fixed in place (eliminating the need to have complicated ground based stations and antennas), provide even lower latency than satellites, and don't come with the downsides to astronomy and the night sky like satellites do.

      13 votes
      1. Amarok
        Link Parent
        Easier to repair and upgrade, higher bandwidth, and no risk of letting Kessler out of the bag with those, either. I'm definitely a fan.

        Easier to repair and upgrade, higher bandwidth, and no risk of letting Kessler out of the bag with those, either. I'm definitely a fan.

        11 votes
      2. [5]
        papasquat
        Link Parent
        The problems are that drones would use the vast majority of their power for staying aloft, the lower altitude would necessitate tens, or even hundreds of thousands of more vehicles, and of course,...

        The problems are that drones would use the vast majority of their power for staying aloft, the lower altitude would necessitate tens, or even hundreds of thousands of more vehicles, and of course, most importantly, there hasn't been a successful demonstration of a drone flying "indefinitely".

        Smallsats are a very mature, well developed technology. I very much doubt that it would be possible to be successful if they went with drones after factoring in the significant R&D and regulatory costs required, if the idea would even work in the first place.

        4 votes
        1. [4]
          Eylrid
          Link Parent
          If a satellite fails in low Earth orbit it eventually deorbits and burn up in the atmosphere, with a possibility of hitting another satellite or debris in the meantime. If a drone fails it falls...

          If a satellite fails in low Earth orbit it eventually deorbits and burn up in the atmosphere, with a possibility of hitting another satellite or debris in the meantime. If a drone fails it falls to the ground possibly landing on someone or something.

          2 votes
          1. [3]
            emdash
            Link Parent
            Actually, you'd be surprised! Many many portions of satellites do not in fact just disintegrate and break up—pieces make it down intact to the Earth's surface all the time. Highly dense or...

            Actually, you'd be surprised! Many many portions of satellites do not in fact just disintegrate and break up—pieces make it down intact to the Earth's surface all the time. Highly dense or refractory pieces of material often make it back just fine—which often form a large part of a satellite's makeup.

            By "drone", we're not referring to a copter-powered approach to flight, but rather something more akin to a sailplane with a very high glide ratio.

            3 votes
            1. [2]
              Anwyl
              Link Parent
              How do you get both?

              fixed in place

              sailplane with a very high glide ratio

              How do you get both?

              1 vote
              1. emdash
                Link Parent
                Fixed in place is a relative term; to the antenna on the ground, the source only has a small variation in its position. The sailplane can circle for its duration with the antenna needing minimal...

                Fixed in place is a relative term; to the antenna on the ground, the source only has a small variation in its position. The sailplane can circle for its duration with the antenna needing minimal steerability. Same with GEO satellites. They do actually move & librate in their orbits slightly. But it's not enough to matter.

                3 votes
      3. [3]
        Diff
        Link Parent
        Kinda surprised that's an option. Would have figured solar wouldn't have been enough for indefinite flight, and if that then not indefinite flight + beefy and capable routing tech + batteries big...

        Kinda surprised that's an option. Would have figured solar wouldn't have been enough for indefinite flight, and if that then not indefinite flight + beefy and capable routing tech + batteries big enough to get them through a winter night.

        1. [2]
          zlsa
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          As I understand it, solar is just barely enough for indefinite flight. I don't have a source, but I recall hearing that the payload of Facebook's Aquila prototype was in the low single-digit...

          As I understand it, solar is just barely enough for indefinite flight. I don't have a source, but I recall hearing that the payload of Facebook's Aquila prototype was in the low single-digit pounds. (And that's with a 140ft/43m wingspan.) Facebook (and to my knowledge, most other solar-powered manufacturers) planned to ascend as high as possible in the day, and slowly glide down at night. (No point storing energy to stay level when you can use your own potential energy.)

          edit: It's worth noting that Facebook's first Aquila prototype crashed on its maiden flight due to structural failure, which shows that these machines are built with very small margins to begin with.

          7 votes
          1. emdash
            Link Parent
            I think if we frame this in a chronologically contextual perspective though; this is amazing. 10 years ago, none of this would've been possible. With further advances in the recovered energy from...

            I think if we frame this in a chronologically contextual perspective though; this is amazing. 10 years ago, none of this would've been possible. With further advances in the recovered energy from solar panels, lighter glider materials (which are still improving), and miniaturization of equipment (Gbps/kg); it's on the upward curve; just like solar panels were 15 years ago.

            Right now it may be marginal, or slightly better than so. It won't stay that way.

            7 votes
    3. [3]
      Eylrid
      Link Parent
      Of all the companies that could make money off of putting thousands of satellites in orbit, SpaceX is the one I'm most okay with. Starlink money is a big part of making Starship happen, and if...

      Of all the companies that could make money off of putting thousands of satellites in orbit, SpaceX is the one I'm most okay with. Starlink money is a big part of making Starship happen, and if they succeed at that they will be able to put larger telescopes into space for cheaper. It will be a huge benefit to astronomy.

      why should one company get to profit at everyone else's expense?

      They're not the only ones to benefit. Bringing high speed internet to rural and less developed areas will benefit a lot of people.

      4 votes
      1. [2]
        emdash
        Link Parent
        Picking favourites has to be one of worst ways of determining what is objectionable and what is good. Musk won't run SpaceX forever. It's entirely possible the company could get turned into...

        Picking favourites has to be one of worst ways of determining what is objectionable and what is good. Musk won't run SpaceX forever. It's entirely possible the company could get turned into another profit-driven machine with a disregard for consumers.

        7 votes
        1. Eylrid
          Link Parent
          I have no doubt that will happen eventually. I'm hopeful that they can do some good between now and then, though. Musk has said he won't take SpaceX public until after they are regularly flying to...

          I have no doubt that will happen eventually. I'm hopeful that they can do some good between now and then, though. Musk has said he won't take SpaceX public until after they are regularly flying to Mars. Being the majority shareholder he can stay in control until his mission is accomplished or he abandons it.

          (I also don't object to Starlink on it's own merits. Global high speed internet will be a boon to the world, with or without good customer service.)

          1 vote
    4. [7]
      onyxleopard
      Link Parent
      Doesn’t the same argument apply to airlines, which put many more objects into the sky that are much larger? Are there specific problems with the regulation of satellite launches that you have...

      Doesn’t the same argument apply to airlines, which put many more objects into the sky that are much larger? Are there specific problems with the regulation of satellite launches that you have issue with? Or do you just want humans to stop putting artificial satellites into orbit, period? Because we get all sorts of useful things from satellites from climate monitoring, GPS, and communications. We also happen to get astronomic instruments that can operate outside of the atmosphere.

      1 vote
      1. [6]
        Flashynuff
        Link Parent
        I don't think so. Firstly, there's about 10k airplanes in the sky at any given time (according to some rough googling from FlightAware) and they don't stay there. Secondly, not all airplanes are...

        I don't think so. Firstly, there's about 10k airplanes in the sky at any given time (according to some rough googling from FlightAware) and they don't stay there. Secondly, not all airplanes are controlled by the same company, so one company can't unilaterally make decisions that affect the entire world. Thirdly, there's about 1-3k satellites currently in space, this is ten times that. Finally, as mentioned in some other comments in this thread, SpaceX is trying to bring a "move fast and break things" mentality to space. I don't think that's fair to other people in the world who may be affected by the things they break.

        7 votes
        1. [5]
          onyxleopard
          Link Parent
          Sure, but they land and then take off again at regular intervals. 10k or 30k is the same order of magnitude and airplanes are much more conspicuous compared to satellites which will be at higher...

          and they don't stay there.

          Sure, but they land and then take off again at regular intervals. 10k or 30k is the same order of magnitude and airplanes are much more conspicuous compared to satellites which will be at higher altitude/orbit.

          SpaceX is trying to bring a "move fast and break things" mentality to space

          I don’t like the reductionism here. How is submitting the required filings for their plans moving fast and breaking things? That sounds like quite the opposite to me. They are carefully planning a years-long process, with this being the first steps. Maybe their filings will be held up, denied, or partially denied. We won’t know because the process is not fast and there is ample time for the regulatory bodies to consider the proposal and what the risks are of anything 'breaking'.

          5 votes
          1. [4]
            emdash
            Link Parent
            It's worth noting that planes have a smaller area over which they're visible; and tend to concentrate in areas where there is already a build up of human habitat (cities, etc) whereas satellites...

            It's worth noting that planes have a smaller area over which they're visible; and tend to concentrate in areas where there is already a build up of human habitat (cities, etc) whereas satellites are evenly distributed: there's no escaping them. Furthermore—satellites may be farther away, but they reflect sunlight back to the ground because the altitude they're at means that even if the ground beneath the satellite is in darkness, the satellite needn't be either.

            The analogy isn't perfect, and there's nuances to either side here; but @Flashynuff's point has merit.

            How is submitting the required filings for their plans moving fast and breaking things?

            Because SpaceX's application is merely ITU submission-stuffing. The entity which submits first often gets positioning & wavelength rights, and as long as they can fulfill a minor obligation of the submission (operation of a subset of the network for a small amount of time within 7 years), they get priority. It's a modern day landgrab—which maps to what @Flashynuff says about it being a near unilateral decision on SpaceX's part, because the regulatory environment they're dealing with isn't sufficiently positioned to deal with mega-constellations from Silicon Valley companies.

            Calling it "careful planning" is a reach.

            4 votes
            1. [3]
              onyxleopard
              Link Parent
              Well that sounds like a problem with the regulatory system and not with SpaceX to me. Replace SpaceX with the next corporation in line and nothing has changed, right?

              Well that sounds like a problem with the regulatory system and not with SpaceX to me. Replace SpaceX with the next corporation in line and nothing has changed, right?

              2 votes
              1. [2]
                emdash
                Link Parent
                I mean, we're trending philosophical here. It's both a regulatory issue and an abuse within the law, just like how companies get away with paying no income tax—which doesn't make it morally...

                I mean, we're trending philosophical here. It's both a regulatory issue and an abuse within the law, just like how companies get away with paying no income tax—which doesn't make it morally correct.

                It is my view that SpaceX is abusing the regulatory system for their own financial gain by utilizing the "move fast and break things" ideology, yes.

                5 votes
                1. Flashynuff
                  Link Parent
                  Yes, exactly. Just because something is technically legal doesn't make it ethical, and SpaceX is choosing to pursue (in my view) an unethical path. There's nothing stopping them from funding /...

                  Yes, exactly. Just because something is technically legal doesn't make it ethical, and SpaceX is choosing to pursue (in my view) an unethical path. There's nothing stopping them from funding / contributing to a more equitable public effort to achieve a similar end goal of global internet except their own selfishness.

                  2 votes