Space debris a frequent topic at Satellite Innovation 2020

SAN FRANCISCO – Tracking and avoiding the growing debris field in low Earth orbit was clearly on the minds of speakers on the first day of the Satellite Innovation 2020 conference.

“Today, unfortunately, there is a lot of debris up there,” said Tony Gingiss, OneWeb Satellites CEO. “We have to be able to track it and avoid it. But fundamentally, we also have to change the landscape in terms of … the responsibilities of the parties operating up there to actually make sure that we’re not creating more debris.”

As OneWeb, SpaceX and Amazon begin as a group to send tens of thousands of satellites into broadband constellations, industry and government officials acknowledge the growing risk of collisions.

The Federal Communications Commission is considering changing its rules for orbital debris mitigation, which have been in force since 2004.

“It’s pretty clear that the large constellation operators recognize that they’re going to have to take some extra steps and extra care because of the level of activity they are engaged in,” said Karl Kensinger, FCC Satellite Division deputy chief.

To mitigate the debris problem, companies can design rockets and satellites to avoid creating debris. Satellite operators also need to keep tabs on satellites that maneuver frequently plus 250,000 pieces of small debris in low Earth orbit, said Dan Ceperley, LeoLabs founder and CEO. Earlier this year, LeoLabs unveiled a collision-avoidance service.

Ultimately, government agencies and companies will need to clean up debris like massive rocket upper stages that pose the most significant risk because a single hit or breakup could “create thousands or tens of thousands of new pieces of debris,” Ceperley said. “It’s the sort of thing where in an instant, you could see the amount of debris in low Earth orbit go up by a factor of 25 or 50%.”

Gingiss emphasized the importance of satellite reliability.

“It’s something that we focus a lot of time on with OneWeb Satellites and with OneWeb,” Gingiss said. “It’s about making sure that what we put up there works, that we maintain control of it and that we can get it out of orbit safely.”

In addition, satellite operators need to work together to establish “clear policies for exchanging data and clear responsibilities” to ensure that actions taken by satellite operators and satellite manufacturers help to mitigate risk, Gingiss said.

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