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Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Why NASA is objecting to an upcoming mega-constellation of satellites

The satellites will be equipped with large antennas that will go up to 900 square metres. NASA fears that the big cross-sections will increase the probability of conjunctions eventually leading to close flybys and eventually collisions. 

By: Tech Desk | New Delhi | Updated: November 10, 2020 10:20:34 am
nasa, ast & science, ast & science satellite, satellite collision, nasa warning, space collision, a-train space mobile collisionNASA fears a catastrophic collision with launch of 243 satellites (Representational Image: AP)

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has expressed concerns about an upcoming mega constellation of broadband satellites that will pose a substantial risk of collision. A Texas-based company AST & Science plans to put up a network of up to 243 satellites which will nearly be 720 km above from Earth’s space as per a report by ArsTechnica. It also mentioned that NASA submitted a letter on October 30 to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) explaining the potential consequences of the major network of satellites.

“NASA submits this letter during the public comment period for the purpose of providing a better understanding of NASA’s concerns with respect to its assets on-orbit, to further mitigate the risks of collisions for the mutual benefit of all involved,” wrote Samantha Fonder, an engineer for the space agency.

The already controversial constellation called SpaceMobile aims to provide 4G service and potentially 5G service in the future. The 2017-founded company’s partners include Samsung, Rakuten and the Vodafone Group. The satellites will be equipped with large antennas that will go up to 900 square metres. NASA fears that the big cross-sections will increase the probability of conjunctions eventually leading to close flybys and eventually collisions.

The AST & Science’s satellites also pose threat to “A-Train’ which is a group of 10 Earth-observation missions. They are operated by NASA and other international partners that orbit around the Earth at a similar path. The average distance of A-Train from our planet is about 705 km with the altitude of satellites ranging between 690-760 km.

“Therefore, the AST constellation would be essentially collocated with the A-Train if the proposed orbit altitude is chosen… consider alternative orbit regimes for this constellation, perhaps notably below the A-Train constellation, in order to allow for a more manageable safety-of-flight situation for a constellation of such large satellites,” ” NASA’s letter further read.

On the other hand, AST & Science’s calculations suggest that the risk of collision is just 1 in 5,000 with any spacecraft in Earth’s lower orbit. However, the odds will be more in favour of collision at 1 in 20 if the Texas-based company gets all 243 satellites up in the space.

NASA also said that it will increase the burden as they will have to take actions to manoeuvre around the mega constellation. “For the completed constellation of 243 satellites, one can expect 1,500 mitigation actions per year and perhaps 15,000 planning activities,” the space agency stated. “This would equate to four manoeuvres and 40 active planning activities on any given day.”

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