Growing Concerns Over SpaceX Starlink Satellites’ Collision-Avoidance Maneuvers

Exponential Increase in Maneuvers Raises Worries About Long-Term Orbital Safety

space debris
Source: NASA

An Alarming Trend

The number of collision-avoidance maneuvers performed by SpaceX’s Starlink satellites has skyrocketed in the past six months, raising concerns about the future sustainability of satellite operations.

Over 25,000 maneuvers were conducted between December 2022 and May 2023, doubling the previous six-month period’s count. Since the launch of the first Starlink spacecraft in 2019, these satellites have made over 50,000 maneuvers to prevent collisions.

Experts are troubled by the steep rise in maneuvers, which follows an exponential curve. Hugh Lewis, an astronautics professor, warns that this trend leads to rapidly increasing numbers that could pose significant challenges to orbital safety.

The Projection

Data reveals that Starlink satellites performed 2,219 maneuvers in the first half of 2021, which doubled to 6,873 in the subsequent six months. In the latter half of 2022, SpaceX made 13,612 alterations to satellite paths. 

The latest report to the FCC records 25,299 collision-avoidance maneuvers in the past six months alone, averaging six moves per satellite.

If this trajectory continues, projections estimate that Starlink satellites will need to maneuver almost a million times in a six-month period by 2028. With SpaceX still deploying satellites and plans for a second-generation constellation, concerns about orbital congestion and collision risks intensify.

Orbital debris
A computer-generated image representing the locations, but not relative sizes, of space debris as could be seen from high Earth orbit (HEO)

A Precarious Situation

Experts worry that maintaining order in orbit will become increasingly challenging. Joanne Wheeler, a satellite regulations expert, highlights that over 1.7 million satellites are registered for potential launch. 

Hugh Lewis likens the situation to constantly swerving on a highway every 10 meters, raising doubts about the overall safety of orbital operations.

SpaceX currently performs avoidance maneuvers when the probability of collision exceeds 1 in 100,000, a threshold lower than the standard set by international agencies. 

However, as the number of “conjunction alerts” continues to rise, the residual risk of collision grows. Concerns extend beyond new satellites; the proliferation of space debris further complicates spacecraft safety.

Looking Ahead

As SpaceX relies on an autonomous collision avoidance system, the accuracy of orbital trajectory models and potential atmospheric variations can impact the effectiveness of maneuvers. 

Experts believe that without satellite number regulations, collisions will become more frequent, leading to a rapid increase in uncontrollable space debris fragments—a scenario known as the Kessler Syndrome.

To ensure long-term orbital safety, experts urge careful consideration of non-statistical errors and potential cascading collision effects. While SpaceX remains confident in managing increased maneuver loads, concerns persist regarding the edge of safety.

In the race to deploy vast constellations, the space industry faces a critical juncture that requires balancing satellite proliferation with sustainable orbital operations.

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