Welcome to Quartz’s newsletter on the economic possibilities of the extraterrestrial sphere. Please forward widely, and let me know what you think. This week: The LEO crowd, the debris and the damage done, and the Chamath show.
The US isn’t keeping up with the proliferation of new spacecraft in low-earth orbit, and the potential consequences are serious.
Megaconstellations, like those developed by SpaceX and OneWeb, will add tens of thousands of new satellites to the environment around the planet. University of Southampton professor Hugh Lewis used data from the Center for Space Standards & Innovation to visualize how often satellites are expected to pass by each other, based on their present positions.
Satellite operators become concerned when their satellites are expected to pass within a kilometer of another spacecraft, given the uncertainty involved in predicting their movement. The data show a significant escalation in close conjunctions involving satellites in the new megaconstellations.
In 2019, for example, SpaceX’s Starlink satellites were involved in about 1% of all satellite conjunctions within 1 kilometer; today, the constellation is involved in about 10% of those close passes—after you exclude close passes among Starlink spacecraft.
The findings make sense, since Starlink is the world’s largest satellite constellation, but with more spacecraft coming from countries and companies around the world, expect more conjunctions. Jim Cooper, an engineer at COMSPOC, the space situational awareness company that helped produce this data, says 1 km conjunctions have doubled since 2017, from 2,000 in a month to 4,000.
More conjunctions mean more space debris, which can damage anything in orbit. There are business costs, too: Any time a satellite is maneuvering to avoid a conjunction, it is burning precious propellant and time better spent earning revenue.
We don’t need to overstate the dangers here: The current likeliest conjunction, between two small satellites operated by Swarm, is forecast at a probability of one-tenth of one percent. At the same time, growth of spacecraft in orbit means increased low probability events. As Bill Ailor, who studies spacecraft re-entry at the Aerospace Corporation, puts it, once you start adding up lots of low probability events, “you start getting some numbers you might want to think about.”
And people have thought about space traffic management, and new standards to keep up with the revolution in satellite use. The Trump administration ordered the US government to develop a proper approach to the problem in 2018. In 2020, a special National Academy panel concluded that the Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce was the right agency to handle the job and encouraged Congress to pay for the project.
And since then? Not much. President Joe Biden has yet to nominate anyone to run the Office of Space Commerce, and experts fear a lack of White House support could lead to brain drain and missed opportunities. Congress has yet to appropriate funds for the agency to set up a clearinghouse for orbital tracking data or write rules for American spacecraft there. The Endless Frontier Act, a bill filled with a slew of investments in research and technology, may wind up funding this project. Meanwhile, the European Space Agency has already set up its own operations center to pilot a space traffic management system.
“The challenge is being posed to the US in terms of leadership, because we’ve lost some of our momentum,” Cooper says. He’d like to see the US start a pilot project using private companies like his to create a useful system for public and private satellite operators alike, which currently rely on the Department of Defense and trade organizations to track their satellites and cooperatively avoid collisions.
The US has been at the vanguard of private investment in space. It should be at the vanguard of making that investment sustainable, too.
The Canadian Space Agency recently released these images of a debris strike on Canadarm2, the large robotic manipulator used by the International Space Station. The hole, about 5 mm in diameter, was caused by the impact of a tiny piece of debris smacking into the arm. CSA engineers say that the strike hasn’t affected the arm’s ability to operate, but the visible damage shows why ISS operators fret about space debris—especially with more astronauts and civilians going to and from the orbiting lab.
A year after George Floyd’s killing galvanized discussions about corporate responsibility, Quartz is trying to see if anything has changed. Venture capital investment soared to a record $131 billion in 2018, but barely 1% of VC funding that year went toward Black or brown entrepreneurs. Anthony Oni, managing partner and CEO of Elevate Future Initiative at investment firm Energy Impact Partners, has some suggestions for how VCs approach opportunities to fund Black founders.
Axiomatic. The plan is simple: Fly as many paying astronauts to the ISS as possible. Axiom Space has announced the purchase of three additional flights to the ISS through 2023 on previously flown SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, in addition to its delayed first mission, now expected to fly in 2022. Axiom may indeed have a monopoly on private visits to the station, at least in the near-term, since NASA says it will only allow two private missions a year to the ISS. I’m dying to know the cost of these flights, which neither company wants to disclose, so do reach out if you know.
Speaking about SPACs. The New Yorker has profiled Chamath Palihapitiya, the Silicon Valley investor noted for taking Virgin Galactic public in a SPAC transaction that helped kick off the now-dying boom in blank check IPOs. The profile is worth reading, if only for this description of Palihapitiya meeting Richard Branson: “These guys are born salesmen. It’s like watching someone trying to have sex with their reflection.”
ViaSat not done with SpaceX yet. The legal battles against SpaceX’s Starlink constellation have a new venue: ViaSat is challenging the FCC’s decision to award SpaceX more than $800 million in subsidies to support the deployment of satellite broadband in rural parts of the US. Both terrestrial and orbital competitors of SpaceX have claimed it can’t provide the necessary connectivity, but it will be difficult to evaluate until the company completes its constellation.
I’m your Venus. NASA tapped new missions to explore Venus, announcing yesterday that two relatively cheap “Discovery” class space probes will explore the planet’s atmosphere and map its surface. Interest in Venus has risen since the recent detection of an organic compound in its atmosphere that may be associated with life. Rocket Lab, the space transportation firm, is plotting its own private mission to Venus in the years ahead.
Rolling solar. The ISS will get an upgrade when new solar arrays arrive as part of an uncrewed supply mission today. The unique photovoltaic system is flexible enough to roll into a tube for transport, but will deliver more power than the previous panels used on the station. The move is driven in part by increasing commercial demand on the station. The new panels were produced by Redwire, a firm that has been buying up space businesses to assemble an orbital infrastructure conglomerate.
This was issue 95 of our newsletter. Hope your week is out of this world! Please send the financial details of Axiom’s SpaceX deal, your ISS vacation activities wishlist, tips, and informed opinions to email@example.com.