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SpaceX plans launch of 12,000 satellites into Earth’s orbit

Elon Musk's company, SpaceX, recently launched 60 internet satellites into Earth's orbit, with a plan to release 12,000 more satellites in the coming years. The venture, called Starlink, promises to increase internet access around the globe. But scientists are worried about what kind of orbital debris may be left behind. Loren Grush, a reporter with The Verge, joins Megan Thompson to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Yesterday, NASA announced that it would allow tourists to visit the International Space Station possibly starting as early as next year. NASA's effort to find new commercial opportunities comes at a time when there is a new space race underway and it's not countries competing, it's private companies.

    SpaceX recently launched dozens of satellites designed to provide global internet coverage from space. And NASA granted contracts to three private companies to develop robotic landers for missions to the moon. But with all that competition, is even a place like space vast enough?

    NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson recently sat down with Lauren Grush, senior reporter for The Verge to discuss.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So, first just tell us what is SpaceX up to up there? I understand they recently launched 60 satellites, what's this all about?

  • Lauren Grush:

    An evergreen question. No. So, SpaceX's Starlink initiative. It's like you said, it's to provide global internet coverage by using thousands of satellites that beam internet coverage down from space. Now we have satellites that provide internet coverage from space right now, they're very high up you know thousands and thousands of miles above the surface.

    But what SpaceX and other companies want to do is launch them into lower orbits so that they can beam internet and you don't really observe any latency in signals so that the roundtrip flight time takes a less time to get to you. But, when you have satellites in a lower orbit, in order to provide that global coverage, you need a lot more satellites because they have to be able to see the entire planet.

    And so that's why SpaceX is proposed sending nearly 12,000 satellites into into space. To to… provide this coverage.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And I understand they're not the only private companies looking to get into this. Who else is involved?

  • Lauren Grush:

    So, there's another company called OneWeb that already launched its own satellites and then Amazon recently said that it wants to launch thousands of satellites and yeah there are other companies that are looking into this too. So it's definitely a very coveted goal among the space industry.

  • Megan Thompson:

    So, SpaceX could launch at some point up to 12,000 satellites. There's all these other companies looking to launch thousands more. I mean, what are the implications of having that many satellites up in space?

  • Lauren Grush:

    So, the biggest thing that people are concerned with is obviously this orbital debris problem. We already have many thousands of satellites in space right now. And this could triple or quadruple that number with the Starlink Initiative alone. And so, the problem is these satellites are moving at thousands of miles per hour in space. They're not just floating up there.

    So, if one of them runs into another one then that could create a very catastrophic debris field and then those pieces of debris are moving at thousands of miles per hour as well.

    The good news is space is big. And so these collisions really don't happen very often, if at all. But there is a concern the more that we put up there the higher the risk of these collisions happening.

    The good news though is that SpaceX has thought about this they have orbital debris mitigation plans. For one thing they have this kind of like a G.P.S. tracker on their satellites, at least they say, where they use tracking information that the Air Force has and they use that to kind of maneuver out of the way if they happen to be you know on path to collide with something. And also the orbits that they've gone to eventually these satellites will decay over time because of gravity our atmosphere will pull them down.

    But it is still a concern and it's not, no one really quite knows what's going to happen but we are trying to you to think of ways to mitigate this problem before we launch into space.

  • Megan Thompson:

    If there was a massive collision of these satellites, I mean what would the effects of that be?

  • Lauren Grush:

    Well we've already seen that happen. Two satellites collided a couple of years ago and like I said they created hundreds to thousands of pieces of debris and that debris goes into various orbits. It doesn't really have any kind of uniform path.

    And so, once that happens then the Air Force has to track that as well.

    And so then you have to catalog all those pieces of debris and then that becomes and that becomes a hazard. Now other satellite operators would have to know where that piece of debris is and if it's heading in your satellites way then you're going to have to move or you might get hit.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Could it knock out global communications if something like that happens?

  • Lauren Grush:

    I mean it could knock out a very functioning satellite and some of these satellites that are up there are you know hundreds of thousands of dollars, you know millions of dollars to make. So yea it is a very real problem if you have these pieces of debris.

    For now, SpaceX has only launched 60 satellites. So it's not that many but given the magnitude that they want to launch, it could become a concern. At least at the risk of collision could go up significantly.

  • Megan Thompson:

    And I understand that astronomers have an issue with all these satellites up there. Tell me about that.

  • Lauren Grush:

    Right. So orbital debris was obviously on everybody's minds before SpaceX launch, but then over the weekend after astronomers saw them in space they were quite bright because they are shiny and they have solar panels that reflect the sunlight and you can still see them at night even though the earth is shrouded in darkness, these satellites are very high up so they can still catch the sun's light and reflect that back onto the Earth.

    And that's a problem for astronomers who already have to deal with satellites. Now, they take long exposure images with their telescopes and so whenever you have a bright object zooming through your image it creates this long bright white streak. And that can really buck up your observations of the universe because you need to take in a lot of light. But if you have a light long streak through it you can't really see a galaxy or an asteroid or an object, however many light years away from Earth.

  • Megan Thompson:

    For so many years space was a place that only national governments went. And now we're seeing all these private companies, all these launchings happening. I mean are we looking at essentially the privatization of space? I mean what are the potential implications for that?

  • Lauren Grush:

    It is a very real transition that is happening in the space industry right now. More and more companies are launching than governments and I think you know it with everything every new revolution there are positives and their negatives. Right.

    Now we have a whole new way for new players to get into space. People that probably never thought that they could operate in the space industry. Now the prices are coming down, the more that we launch more people can send satellites and research into space which is great. But at the same time we're seeing these implications of having more frequent launches.

    And you know there is concern with the more that we put into space the more debris that there could be and then eventually we might not be able to use space if it gets too crowded and if we don't think about these things right now.

    And like we're saying it took the astronomers seeing these satellites in orbit and being so bright to really understand the implications of what might happen. So, I think there's a lot of things that we're going to see play out as they launch more. But, like I said there's positives and there's negatives to any kind of new emerging trend. And I think that'll play out in the years ahead.

  • Megan Thompson:

    Great. Lauren Grush of the verge. Thank you so much for being here.

  • Lauren Grush:

    Thank you for having me.

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