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How to turn off a satellite

Disclaimer: “Beyond astro-ph” articles are not necessarily meant to be representative of the views of the entire Astrobites collaboration, nor do they represent the views of the AAS or all astronomers. While AAS endorses Astrobites, Astrobites is editorially independent and content appearing on Astrobites is not reviewed or approved by AAS.

Increasingly, the public is being made aware of satellites that can drastically alter our night sky after They have already been started. These satellites are having a profound impact on the field of astronomy, the life cycles of indigenous religious practices, and our quality of life. With the recent launch of the massive AST SpaceMobile Blue Walker 3 satellite, it pays to understand the very few ways satellite issues can be addressed. The consideration is more than urgent: Blue Walker 3 can outshine Venus in the night sky. AST plans to have 110 of these satellites by 2024.

Illustration 1: Advertisement by AST Mobile for their Blue Walker satellites, the first of which has been launched and is yet to be deployed. It is predicted to be one of the brightest objects in the night sky.

Wait

Nature already does some of the heavy lifting (pulling?) when it comes to mining satellites. The energy exerted by friction between the satellite and the thin layer of atmosphere in its orbit creates atmospheric drag that drains energy from the system. As energy needs to be conserved, the orbit decreases and the satellite moves into a tighter orbit around the Earth. In this way, Earth will eventually recapture any satellites that are put into orbit, it’s only a matter of time.

Some satellite companies rely on it! It also means that satellites are launched often with no plan to retrieve or dispose of them, sometimes because companies go bankrupt during the mission. The European Space Agency (ESA) provides a “recommended course of action” guideline to mitigate this effect, but it is one excitation– no law. In fact, just earlier this week, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chair Jessica Rosenworcel proposed the first rule mandating satellite de-orbiting after five years, which is scheduled for an official vote on Sept. 29.

As a result, many companies fail to create a plan for recovering their satellites. Instead, they rely on a variety of self-destruct mechanisms, some of which can create new problems. Depending on its distance from Earth, it can take years, decades, or centuries for an orbiting satellite to decay. This assumes, of course, that they don’t collide. When this happens, debris can take an unpredictable number of years to disintegrate and act as a hail of bullets into nearby spacecraft for decades.

In other words, satellites that live for decades to centuries will outlive those who launched them. At best, those with shorter lifespans fall to Earth or burn up in the atmosphere if they are small enough. Some controlled landings end up in the “spacecraft graveyard,” a point in the ocean far from human life, while others are scattered across Earth. At other times, they will be withdrawn to higher orbits above Earth in the graveyard orbit, which will last instead millions of years to return to earth.

catch

When it is not possible to move spacecraft to a graveyard or cremate them, other clean-ups have been suggested. This is especially important to avoid the Kessler Effect – a runaway effect of broken satellites that sets off chain reactions of space junk that are unstoppable once achieved. This will eliminate all GPS, navigation, space-based internet, ISS and future space missions.

Over 4,800 bodies orbit the Earth, and tens of thousands more are proposed. In an effort to pick up some of the debris, countries and private companies alike have risen to the challenge. The technology is varied and creative:

  • Manual acquisition using robotics on board other satellites such as ClearSpace-1 (launch 2025-26).
  • A giant fishing rod launched by JAXA in 2014. Her giant electrodynamic space tether was intended to attract and burn debris, but unfortunately the tether could not be deployed and the body itself became debris.
  • Catch and discard, such as Astroscale’s commercial “space sweepers” with ESA by 2030. In that case, the OneWeb satellites still have some fuel to return to Earth. Should that fail, the satellites are also equipped with grappling and magnet capabilities, allowing them to be picked up by a service vehicle dubbed “ELSA-M” due for launch in 2024.
  • A harpoon. Literally a pen-sized harpoon. This unique idea was designed to capture space junk and roll into a servicer spacecraft to be removed or towed to lower orbit for incineration. Tests have been successful so far by RemoveDEBRIS!

…as you can imagine is debris removal very difficult to do and does not solve the problem completely. Meanwhile, the number of satellites and debris is increasing exponentially.

Figure 2: JAXA simulation of a space debris removal tether (from spaceflightinsider.com).

Easy Do not

That most failsafe The best way to avoid problems with satellites just don’t put one there. Frustratingly, however, very little is often reported about new satellite launches like the new Blue Walker 3, despite their potential for far-reaching implications for astronomy, the night sky, and the Earth itself.

Citizens have few choices when large corporations have made private decisions that affect our lives. In the meantime, you can still write to your politicians, boycott companies that use satellite services, explore alternatives to those services like fiber optic cables, or boycott watches that communicate directly with satellites. In the US, there is a $48 billion Internet for All initiative to be distributed to the states, which will provide an important opportunity to support fiber Internet instead of subscribing to satellites.

For readers in science fields looking for a job, I also encourage you to work for these cleaning companies you may not know, rather than the big name companies you know. Satellites must be viewed as contributors to the planet’s growing problems, and their launch and subsequent clean-up must be approached with great responsibility.

Do you want to help? There is a growing list of ways to help previous AstroBite and thesky and telescope Article.

Astrobite edited by Michael Foley

Photo credit: Nokia/AST Space Mobile about news scientists

About Lindsay DeMarchi

Lindsay DeMarchi is currently a graduate student at Northwestern University. Obsessed with gravity, she uses multi-messenger methods to analyze the final moments of star collapse.

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