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Elon Musk rejects claims his satellites are squeezing out rivals in space

Falcon 9 rocket on the launch pad.
Enlarge / A SpaceX rocket ready for launch.

Trevor Mahlmann

Elon Musk has hit back at criticism that his company’s Starlink satellites are hogging too much room in space, and has instead argued there could be room for “tens of billions” of spacecraft in orbits close to Earth.

“Space is just extremely enormous, and satellites are very tiny,” Musk said. “This is not some situation where we’re effectively blocking others in any way. We’ve not blocked anyone from doing anything, nor do we expect to.”

His comments, made in an interview with the Financial Times, came in response to a claim from Josef Aschbacher, head of the European Space Agency, that Musk was “making the rules” for the new commercial space economy. Speaking to the FT earlier this month, Aschbacher warned that Musk’s rush to launch thousands of communications satellites would leave fewer radio frequencies and orbital slots available for everyone else.

SpaceX, Musk’s private space company, has already launched nearly 2,000 satellites for its Starlink broadband communications network and has plans for tens of thousands more.

Rejecting suggestions he was “squeezing out” future satellite competitors, Musk compared the number of satellites in low Earth orbit to what he said were 2 billion cars and trucks on Earth. Each orbital “shell” around the Earth is larger than the planet’s surface, he said, with an additional shell every 10 meters or so further out into space.

“That would imply room for tens of billions of satellites,” he said. “A couple of thousand satellites is nothing. It’s like, hey, here’s a couple of thousand of cars on Earth — it’s nothing.”

Some experts challenged Musk’s claim that satellites in low Earth orbit could safely match the density of cars and trucks on Earth.

Spacecraft traveling at 17,000 mph need far greater separation than cars to leave time to adjust their orbits if a collision seems likely, said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. At that speed, a three-second gap would only leave room for about 1,000 satellites in each orbital shell, he calculated.

Potential collisions can only be identified close to when they might occur because of the difficulty of calculating the trajectory of many different satellites, and because changes in solar weather affect their trajectories, McDowell said.

“For many space users, planning an avoidance maneuver is at least hours if not days, so this suggests space is already too crowded,” he said.

China complained this month that two Starlink satellites had forced the Chinese space station to take “preventive collision avoidance control” measures in October and July to “ensure the safety and lives of in-orbit astronauts.”

Laura Forczyk, a space analyst at space consulting group Astralytical, said Musk’s comparison of satellites to vehicles on Earth was “flippant,” but added: “He’s essentially correct that it’s a traffic management problem.”

The race to launch new communications networks with thousands of satellites had revealed a glaring need for more coordination between countries to decide “how orbital space is to be distributed and space traffic to be managed,” she said.

Forczyk said Aschbacher’s criticism of Starlink was “based on emotion, not facts.”

“I have to wonder if similar complaints were made when certain airlines started flying more planes on set routes. No one owns the skies and all are free to use them,” she said.

© 2021 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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