Spacing Out: A Big Anniversary, Starlink Failures Plummet, Lunar Cellphones, And A Crewed Launch

After a couple of months away we’re returning with our periodic roundup of happenings in orbit, as we tear you away from Star Trek: Discovery and The Mandalorian, and bring you up to date with some highlights from the real world of space. We’ve got a launch to look forward to this week, as well as a significant anniversary.

The ISS as it looked twenty years ago. NASA (Crew of STS-106), Public domain.
The ISS as it looked twenty years ago. NASA (Crew of STS-106), Public domain.

A quiet but extremely significant anniversary first up: in the week that this is being written we’ve passed the 20-year anniversary of a continuous human presence in space aboard the ISS. The geopolitical map of the world may have swirled around down on the surface over the last couple of decades, but American, Russian, Canadian, European, and Japanese astronauts and cosmonauts with all their modules and experiments have continually passed over our heads in an island of international harmony and scientific endeavour. There appears to be political uncertainty over how long the station will eventually serve, however for now its future seems assured with talk of its use in research for Mars missions and for commercial expansion modules.

SpaceX’s Starlink global satellite broadband project has been in the news. As any long-term space-watchers will know, there is a failure rate among satellites and it’s not uncommon for craft to be lost before they can come into service, and in this Starlink is no exception. Their failure figure was reported as 2.5% leading to a possible thousand or so dead satellites in orbit by the completion of the constellation, but revised calculations from the astronomer Jonathan McDowell show an impressive improvement over the different series’ of launches. The latest launches boast a failure rate of only 0.2%, which almost certainly corresponds to some impressive behind-the-scenes work from the SpaceX engineers.

If you remember Nokia only for their dominance of the consumer mobile phone market over a decade ago then you may not be aware that they remain a major player in the world of cellular phone infrastructure, even if their handset glory days are behind them. As such they’ve been selected by NASA to deploy the first 4G cellular network off-planet, on the lunar surface. So if you’re in a spot with poor signal down on Earth you can now complain that even astronauts have better service than you! Jokes aside, the network won’t be an extension of the ones we use down here. Instead it will use 4G technologies to provide reliable on-moon communication for voice, video, and telemetry across the whole surface of NASA’s area of operations. The system will consist of space-hardened and miniaturised base stations that will be robotically deployed, so there are unlikely to be astronaut cell tower engineers working on the moon any time soon.

The story to look out for this week will be the launch of SpaceX’s Crew-1 mission to the ISS on the 14th of November. We all saw the first manned Crew Dragon test mission earlier in the year, and this will form the first operational crew launch of the capsule. This mission has been delayed since August due to some technical issues for the SpaceX engineers to iron out. We wish them every success, and will let out a sigh of relief when we watch the hatch open and them coming aboard their new orbiting home.

32 thoughts on “Spacing Out: A Big Anniversary, Starlink Failures Plummet, Lunar Cellphones, And A Crewed Launch

  1. 0.2% out of how many launches? If there’s going to be 30,000 – 50,000 satellites each with a service life of 3-4 years (running out of fuel), then 15-25 satellites are falling down randomly every year by malfunction. They take a few months to de-orbit, but since the company is lobbing them up continuously, they will be raining down at a steady rate.

    Give that 4% of the planets’ surface is inhabited by people, the probability of dropping the debris down on someone’s property is about 45-64% each year. In other words, even if 0.2% seems like a low failure rate, this is still unacceptable. It is littering at the least, and if some random large piece survives re-entry, it can punch holes in buildings or people.

    1. Elon Musk is basically playing a low risk game of russian roulette. If you have a thousand empty chambers in the revolver, you might play the game for yourself, but that excuse doesn’t work if you point the gun at other people and force them to play the game a thousand times.

      1. “Designed” and “will actually do so without failure” are two completely different things.

        The difference is that the company will only do the latter, if possible, once they’ve found to break the rules enough times to warrant a lawsuit.

        1. Devil’s advocate here, but they do test “demisability” here on earth in plasma wind tunnels to see if the parts can actually burn up, and the videos are pretty cool. I would take their word on it with the testing being done personally, so I’m not too worried.

      1. And the first few times they don’t completely burn up, and fall down on someone’s head, it’s a “freak accident”, and you have to go to court to prove without doubt that the piece came from a Starlink satellite.

        Remember that most of them will fall down without anybody noticing. The debris that comes down is little partially molten pieces the size of a bullet. You’ll be very unlucky to actually get hit by one, so it can be a very long time before it actually happens. Still, does that mean they should be allowed to?

        1. The astronomy and astrophysics community is really pissed at starlink, and will undoubtedly try to track every failed starling sat to where it crashes*. After all, if they can prove (as you argue) that starlink is a danger to life and property, they can lobby the government to get it banned. Have the identified the crash site of any starlink satellites yet?

          You probably won’t consider that possibility since you won’t listen to evidence or arguments that go against your preconceived biases.

          1. What Elon Musk takes away from ground based astronomy will be more than made up for if his starship becomes a reality and the price to launch things into space comes down in a big way. Why spend millions to counter Earth’s gravity and atmospheric distortion if you have cheap access to space? Launch lots of big mirrors up there couple that with some designs that you can only do in weightless / airless space and get a better picture far cheaper than NASA has done. So the pain in the a– caused by starlink will be hopefully be followed by a boon for astronomy that can’t even be imagined currently. Like how about imaging other planets directly for starters…….

          2. > followed by a boon for astronomy

            For some. It creates a situation where anyone with a small budget is SOL here on earth. Even with Musk’s magic spaceship it’s still going to be very very very expensive to get a big mirror up there.

      2. Seriously though. You belive this from a man who promised a $50k car and delivered a $100k car, then promised a $35k car and delivered a $46k car, who claims that “Autopilot” is safer than human drivers, the man behind “Hyperloop”, Solarcity, calling cave rescuers pedophiles for not adopting his crazy escape pod…

        Just like Google is “not evil”, Elon Musk’s companies and plans are a bunch of exaggerations and hot air. If the man says the sun is shining, you should look out the window just in case.

          1. Yeah, now they do, much later than what was promised.

            Tesla refused to make/deliver any of the $35k models, and the only reason you could order one was so they could say they “kept their promise”. In reality they did the exact same thing with the Model S and Model 3: they filled up the orders for the more expensive models first and left everyone else waiting until the customers either gave up and cancelled, or changed the order for the more expensive option.

          1. I’m one of the taxpayers who keep paying Musk’s company through things such as the clean vehicle credit system, without seeing a possibility that I would ever own one of their **** cars.

    2. Fortunately the size/mass of a starlink satellite is roughly the size of a washing machine, so while it’ll be a nasty collision if it hit something in orbit, they’re travelling at 7-8Km/s which at Mach 23 will burn up long before it gets to the thicker portions of the atmosphere that we are interested in.

      Some 100 tonnes of space junk burns up in the atmosphere every year, and you very rarely hear of damage due to debris. **In the history of spaceflight, no casualties have ever been confirmed by falling space debris**

      So yes, while your concerns seem valid to you. The people that actually study these things, are completely unconcerned.

      However the bigger concern is Elon doesn’t sound like he’s playing nice with the other LEO people.

      As for Star Link … The way it’s priced, I think I’d sign up for always-on-internet-anywhere, wouldn’t you?

      1. Of the 100 tonnes of stuff, the vast majority are already tiny pieces of broken up equipment, not washing-machine sized chunks, and the bigger pieces are stuff that’s launched along a equatorial orbit (launch debris, discarded rocket stages, fairings etc.) so it falls on the oceans or in the deserts. Starlink satellites are different because the constellation spans the entire globe almost up to the poles, so it falls down literally everywhere.

        I already have an always-on-internet anywhere I go. Starlink is just an attempt to corner the market in the developing work and become a monopoly on wireless broadband before the developing nations manage to build their own infrastructure to compete.

        I would also rather use a local operator than a global company that routes my traffic through wherever they please.

      2. Can you please give a source for the 100 tonnes that burn up every year? I’m very curious.

        As a rough swag:
        I don’t pay too much specific attention, but even a 100 tonnes of (passive) payload seems a bit high for the amount launched into a LEO trajectory, though, I’m subtracting fuel weight while also excluding suborbital boosters and things that do de-orbit burns, like the Dragon capsule (since those are intended to not burn up, and also choose* where to land). I’m also ignoring High orbit and geo, since those won’t come down until after I’m dead.

        1. Consider that the third booster stages of the rockets often go around a few orbits before they fall down, and they weigh tonnes. 100 tonnes per year isn’t that surprising knowing that it includes everything we shoot up to low earth orbits.

      1. untill EU steps up and decides enough is enough and cancels roaming for EU citizens and because with EU beurocratic machine being slower than turtle my grand children will be calling the moon free when other nations will be building asteroid mining, space industry, colonies on mars and high altitude floating cities on venus, and waging space wars. But whooo no roaming :D

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