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The sky is falling! The FCC has calculated that fragments from SpaceX’s planned Starlink constellation of almost 12,000 satellites pose a risk of landing on humans on Earth.
SpaceX estimates that several kilograms of each 386-kilogram Starlink could reach the Earth’s surface with sufficient energy to harm or kill someone. NASA has fixed this figure at 15 joules—about the same wallop as a baseball traveling at 51 kilometers per hour. Depending on the satellite’s configuration, iron thruster components, stainless steel reaction wheels, or silicon carbide mirrors could survive the journey from orbit to your head.
…In March and June 2017, the FCC calculated the aggregate risk to humans from the entire constellation. Assuming the 11,927 satellites are launched on a regular basis, they will fail in the same way. Starting around six years from the first launch, an average of five satellites a day will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere, each with a tiny chance of failing to completely burn up, resulting in a part that could hit someone.
But with more than a thousand satellites falling a year, those tiny risks add up. The FCC figured out that, over their lifetime, satellites in the LEO shells posed a 1 in 5 risk of hurting or killing someone, and the VLEO satellites carried a 1 in 4 risk. IEEE Spectrum’s calculations using SpaceX’s most up-to-date information suggests that the overall risk of debris from the constellation causing an injury or death will be 45 percent.
Rather than demanding that we restrict or change what SpaceX does, I see this as an opportunity for someone designing robot satellites designed to clean up space junk. Offer your services to SpaceX. They get their problem solved easily, and you make some money.