Small Satellites Could Be Playing a Dangerous Game of Bumper Cars in Space

By Rae Paoletta on at

Space is full of all sorts of junk that can cause problems, including some of the stuff we send up there with good intentions. Take CubeSats. These nanosatellites, which weigh less than three pounds, were first sent into space in December 2006, and have become increasingly popular in the years since as a cost-effective option for telecommunications companies looking to spread wifi and brand recognition. The thing is, there are so many of them now that experts are concerned about them bashing into each other—or worse.

This week at the European Space Agency’s conference on space debris in Darmstadt, Germany, Hugh Lewis, a senior lecturer in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Southampton, detailed how catastrophic it could be for satellites should one rogue CubeSat crash into another and another. In the worst case, this could trigger a collisional cascade known as the Kessler Syndrome, which manifests as a terrifying cloud of space junk that would pose significant risk to working spacecraft, including the ISS. Haven’t you seen Gravity?

New Scientist reports that Lewis and his team “have used a supercomputer to simulate 200 years of possible orbits for 300 different megaconstellation scenarios,” or sprawling networks of CubeSats. Apparently, these vast networks of small satellites increase the risk of a catastrophic collision leading to destruction of a satellite by 50 per cent.

Helpfully, the ESA also released a 12-minute documentary on space junk today, detailing the threat posed not just by CubeSats, but by the hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces of junk flying around Earth’s back garden.

Lewis and his fellow researchers have recommended that space agencies like the ESA bring down inactive satellites sooner to prevent the space junk situation from spiralling out of control. They’ve also encouraged redesigning small satellites so they can steer clear of objects and suicide plunge into Earth’s orbit once their lifespan has ended.

Of all the ways to usher in worldwide panic, if the cause is tiny fucking satellites, I’m going to be so pissed off. [New Scientist]


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