SpaceX launched another batch of Starlink internet satellites on January 7th, continuing its breakneck launch pace that enabled a record 61 orbital launches in 2023. While the accelerated launch schedule has awe-inspiring implications for expanding internet access, it has also stirred debate over the environmental impacts of rocket pollution and orbital congestion.
Rocket Pollution Under Fire
With SpaceX accelerating launch frequency amid an absence of emissions oversight, scientists warn the rocket pollution problem is reaching a breaking point.
According to a recent New York Times analysis, a single SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket emits up to 500 tonnes of CO2 per launch. At the current launch cadence, SpaceX rockets could spew almost 4% as much CO2 as the entire US commercial aviation industry.
Researchers note that rocket exhaust also produces nitrogen oxides and aerosols that destroy ozone or trap heat, potentially amplifying climate impacts. There are currently no regulatory limits on overall rocket emissions.
“We’re seeing exponential growth in rockets, and nothing being done about rocket pollution,” said Dr. Martin Ross, an atmospheric scientist at the Aerospace Corporation. Without oversight, “the problem is just going to grow.”
Satellite Congestion Triggers Collision Fears
The torrent of new satellites also has astronomers sounding alarms over proliferating space debris. Over 3,000 Starlink satellites have already been launched to date, with plans for up to 42,000 more.
According to Financial Times reporting, Starlink satellites have been involved in over 70 collision alerts already. Experts caution the exponential rise of debris heightens risks for all space operators.
“Everybody is at risk,” said John Auburn, managing director of Astroscale UK, which aims to remove orbital debris. “It’s very much the tragedy of the commons.”
A recent study also found mega-constellations like Starlink could diminish the scientific output of ground-based telescopes by up to 40% through photobombing images.
Policy Action on Horizon
With researchers sounding alarms, regulators appear poised to step in. The Federal Communications Commission opened a review of orbital debris rules last month. Tighter international standards may also be on the horizon.
The UN International Telecommunication Union recently wrapped up a conference to forge norms around mitigating satellite congestion. Regulators emphasized the need for manufacturers to take more accountability.
“We have to put requirements on satellite operators to make sure their satellites are disposable,” said Phillip Spector of the FCC’s International Bureau. “Or at least make sure they have a way to dispose of them.”
The conference led manufacturers and operators to pledge cooperation on debris mitigation. But tangible policy action remains lacking for now.
Outlook: Full Speed Ahead
In the absence of emissions limits or binding congestion rules, SpaceX appears primed to push launch rates even higher in 2024 and dramatically expand its Starlink constellation.
The company has launch windows booked every week at Cape Canaveral for the foreseeable future. It also inked multi-launch agreements with satellite rideshare companies last month to maximize each mission.
Barring an unlikely policy intervention, the era of exponential rocket growth shows no signs of slowing down. But the environmental impacts may one day come back down to Earth.
This breaking news story will be updated as the situation develops.