Sun. Dec 3rd, 2023
The Growing Satellite Congestion in Earth’s Orbit

In September 2021, Rwanda announced its plans to launch over 300,000 satellites, followed by a Canadian company and a French company with plans for an additional 100,000 satellites each. SpaceX also intends to launch over 60,000 new satellites on top of the 5,000 it has already deployed. Currently, there are only about 8,000 active satellites in orbit, so why the sudden surge in satellite launches?

Before a satellite can be launched, it must be registered and coordinated with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) to avoid radiofrequency interference with existing satellite signals. Between 2017 and 2022, countries collectively made filings for over one million satellites across more than 300 satellite systems. This raises concerns about potential environmental crises due to the increasing number of rocket launches into already crowded Earth orbits.

One possibility is that satellite operators are filing for more satellites than they actually intend to launch, perhaps with the aim of attracting investors or selling portions of radio spectrum for profit. However, even if only 10% of the filed-for satellites were launched, it would result in over 100,000 additional satellites in low Earth orbit, leading to congestion and increased risks of collisions and space debris.

There are indications that satellite operators may be manipulating the numbers. For example, the French company E-Space filed for a 337,320-satellite constellation through Rwanda and a 116,640-satellite constellation through France, but its CEO mentioned plans for “at least 30,000 satellites,” while the director of product development mentioned “just a few thousand satellites.” Similar discrepancies can be seen with other satellite operators.

Furthermore, some satellite operators are taking advantage of different administrative rules and fees associated with satellite filings in various countries, similar to the practices in the shipping industry. For instance, OneWeb has made filings for thousands of satellites through Mexico, France, and the United Kingdom, and SpaceX has filed through multiple countries including the United States, Norway, Germany, and Tonga.

The ITU, as the United Nations agency responsible for coordinating satellite systems, needs to update its rules to address the challenges posed by the surge in megaconstellation filings. This could involve expediting the rule-making process and implementing fees that discourage excessive or speculative filings. Balancing space sustainability with radio spectrum management is a crucial task for the ITU to fulfill its mandate effectively.