Can Increasing Satellites Orbiting Earth Cause Safety Problems?

Gen. James Dickinson, commander of U.S. Space Command, recently stated before the Senate Armed Services Committee his opinion that the growing number of satellites orbiting the Earth could create safety problems if not correctly managed. Civil and commercial spaceflight safety responsibilities currently carried out by Space Command are expected to be transitioned to the Department of Commerce in the year 2024.

U.S. Space Command currently tracks approximately 32,000 objects in orbit, including more than 3,400 active satellites. Part of the tracking process includes estimating the probability of collisions and sending warnings to satellite operators.

“Commercial opportunities open new possibilities, but can also complicate access to the domain with the proliferation of mega constellations,” Dickinson said. 

The three largest constellations of satellites today are operated by the commercial companies SpaceX, Planet, and Spire.

“The safety and sustainability of an increasingly crowded space domain grows more complex as commercial entities plan to launch thousands of satellites in the next few years,” Dickinson said. “The explosive growth of nano, micro, and small satellites will further stress our existing space surveillance networks. “

To mitigate this problem, Space Command is focusing on improving its “space domain awareness” -their knowledge of objects and activities in space. Dickinson stated that more resources are needed to track commercial traffic and also potential threats such as weapons launched by enemies. It is expanding its space surveillance network by integrating data from ground and sea-based radar used by the Army and the Navy for missile defense. 

“We need to characterize what we’re seeing in the space domain,” said Dickinson.