SpaceX is one of several companies that want to launch megaconstallations of communication satellites into Earth orbit, and that has NASA and other space agencies a little spooked. With that many new objects up there, the chances of a collision skyrocket. SpaceX now has more than 1,000 Starlink nodes around Earth, and NASA has announced an agreement that will ensure those satellites (and future ones) don’t get in the way of any of its missions.
The accord, which has just been released by NASA (PDF), is what’s known as a “nonreimbursable agreement.” That means no money changes hands, but both parties are getting something they want. The document explains that SpaceX is in a unique position right now, and that gives NASA authority under the Space Act to negotiate an agreement that ensures it can fulfill its mission.
SpaceX is the largest satellite operator in the world, and its access to cheap Falcon 9 launches essentially guarantees its network will grow quicker than the ones planned by Amazon and others. In addition, all of its satellites are maneuverable. So, SpaceX will commit to reorienting its constellation to avoid any possible “conjunctions” with NASA assets. It will also tell NASA about upcoming “cut-outs” when Starlink satellites are unable to maneuver to avoid a collision. This is mostly the time between the deployment of satellites and when they reach their assigned orbit. SpaceX will also make some changes to its launches to ensure Starlink satellites never get too close to the International Space Station.
Deployment of 60 Starlink satellites confirmed pic.twitter.com/AMLK4R9dMn
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) March 14, 2021
On the other side, NASA says it will provide detailed data about where all its spacecraft will be, allowing SpaceX to steer clear. It will also contribute expertise to making Starlink satellites less reflective, something that has irked astronomers and astrophotographers ever since SpaceX started launching the constellation. Although, SpaceX is expected to share data with NASA on the effectiveness of its ongoing satellite dimming work.
This is more than a theoretical risk — in 2019, the ESA called for more stringent rules about how megaconstallations share the skies after it had to redirect its Aeolus satellite to avoid colliding with a Starlink node. There was no effective way to tell SpaceX what was happening, and the danger will only become more serious as the industry scales up to thousands of satellites.
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