NASA worries about overcrowding and collisions as Elon Musk plans to send 30,000 more SpaceX satellites into orbit.

Elon Musk, serial entrepreneur, at TED2013: The Young, The Wise, The Undiscovered. Wednesday, February 27, 2013, Long Beach, CA. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

“With the increase in large constellation proposals to the FCC, NASA is concerned about the potential for a significant increase in the frequency of conjunction events and potential impacts to NASA science and human spaceflight missions,” NASA said in a letter filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday. Conjunction here refers to the passing of satellites in front of other objects at close range.

The letter was sent to the FCC as it is currently reviewing SpaceX’s license application for a new generation of satellites, the Starlink Gen2. SpaceX received an initial license from the FCC for 12,000 satellites in 2018. Elon Musk, CEO of the company, said in a tweet on 16 January that it has 1,469 active Starlink satellites and 272 more moving into operational orbits.

There are currently 6,100 tracked objects in low orbit, NASA said in the letter signed by Samantha Fonder, the agency’s representative to the Commercial Space Transportation Interagency Group. According to the agency, the new fleet of Starlink satellites would increase the number of tracked objects fivefold. It would also double the number of objects tracked in global orbit to about 50,000, NASA said.

“An ascent of this magnitude into these limited altitude bands inherently introduces an additional risk of collision events that create debris, simply due to the number of objects,” the space agency added.

The agency also questioned SpaceX’s claim that there was “no risk” of a Starlink spacecraft colliding with large objects because any spacecraft could maneuver.

“Given multiple independent constellations of tens of thousands of spacecraft and the expected increase in the number of close encounters over time, the assumption of zero risk from a system-level standpoint lacks statistical support,” NASA said.

Apart from concerns about collisions, NASA also pointed to risks to its science missions as SpaceX satellites could interfere with NASA satellites and ground-based equipment.

NASA has not directly opposed an FCC license for Starlink Gen2 but said it is requesting more information to mitigate risks.

“NASA wants to ensure that the deployment of the Starlink Gen2 system is conducted prudently and in a manner that supports the safety of spaceflight and the long-term sustainability of the space environment,” the agency said.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Concerns about satellite collisions are not new.

Last year, China filed a formal complaint with the United Nations over two near-collisions between SpaceX’s satellites and its Tiangong space station.

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Written by James Stone

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