After the Federal Aviation Administration released a scathing report on the dangers of space junk, specifically calling out SpaceX, the company sent a letter on October 9 disputing its claims Starlink satellites pose a deadly threat.
SpaceX called the FAA report “preposterous, unjustified, and inaccurate.” The company claims The Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center, failed to contact SpaceX for information or ask for internal analysis relevant to Starlink’s satellite disposal protocols.
The FAA report delivered to Congress on October 5 stated Starlink satellites could threaten the safety of people on the ground or in flight crafts by failing to fully incinerate during reentry as they are decommissioned. The 35-page analysis drew upon research from The Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit research group, which found expansive satellite constellations could harm people by 2035 as their lifespan expires and they fall back to Earth.
“If the expected large constellation growth is realized and debris from Starlink satellites survive reentry… one person on the planet would be expected to be injured or killed every two years,” the FAA report said.
Additionally, the analysis estimates falling space debris could account for 0.0007 aircraft collisions per year, which could drastically increase the number of related deaths.
SpaceX claims the report is based “on a deeply flawed analysis that falsely characterizes reentry disposal risks associated with Starlink.” The company said its satellites are designed to burn up entirely when decommissioned.
“To be clear, SpaceX’s satellites are designed and built to fully demise during atmospheric reentry during disposal at end of life, and they do so,” said SpaceX’s letter. “SpaceX has taken extraordinary measures to design, build, and operate its constellation in a safe and sustainable manner, both in relation to low Earth orbit but, most importantly, to people and property on the ground.”
The letter also called out Amazon’s Project Kulper, OneWeb, and other low-Earth orbit satellite systems in development and being deployed by China.
Since February 2020, 325 Starlink satellites have deorbited and burned up in the atmosphere. SpaceX has launched more than 5,000 satellites into low Earth orbit, and no debris has been found. However, The Aerospace Corporation “assessed that the SpaceX spacecraft could each produce three pieces of debris of 300 grams” and used a “more conservative approach” than the FAA’s analysis that agreed with SpaceX’s analysis.
“With the thousands of satellites expected to reenter, even a small amount of debris can impose a significant risk over time,” said The Aerospace Corporation’s report.
The FAA is reviewing the letter, and The Aerospace Corporation is “in communication with SpaceX and others to review and update the data,” according to CNN.