SpaceX's Starlink Satellite Program Could Start a Space Junk Disaster

Last month signaled SpaceX's first steps toward creating worldwide broadband internet with a network of satellites, called Starlink. If you don't know what Starlink is, we don't blame you—SpaceX has been trying to keep it out of the public eye for a while, unlike some of their other crazy projects. It's a potentially world-changing project, but it comes with a huge risk: space junk.

One of the major problems Starlink is trying to solve is latency—when you have satellites in high orbits providing your internet, it takes the data a long time to beam to and from the satellite, then through the various intermediary satellites.

Starlink solves this problem by having a lot of satellites in low-Earth orbit...a lot. Because satellites in lower orbits cover smaller areas of land than their higher-orbit brethren, Starlink needs over 7,000 of them, in addition to 4,000 more in higher orbit.

All told, Starlink has proposed launching almost 12,000 satellites into orbit, with many of them weighing about 900 pounds. That's more satellites than have ever been launched in all of space history.

The sheer number of satellites involved in Starlink brings with it the specter of "Kessler Syndrome."

The phenomenon is simple but deadly: when one satellite runs out of fuel or malfunctions and collides with another satellite, it can create a shower of debris or knock the other satellite off-course. If there are enough satellites and junk in orbit, one collision could cause a domino effect that knocks out more and more satellites.

SpaceX has said in the past that they're committed to making sure Starlink doesn't become a problem for the worldwide space community, but there are currently no international laws governing space junk, meaning that there's no legal repercussions for anyone who messes up.

The only real solution companies like SpaceX has when disposing of a satellite when it's outlived its usefulness is to let them get pulled into the atmosphere and burn up on re-entry, but when it comes to managing 12,000 of them at once (and 4,000 in higher orbits, where they're less likely to get pulled down naturally), how many will slip through the cracks?