Human-made spacecraft were previously uncommon in Lower Earth Orbit (LEO), with just a few dozen orbiting the globe during the commencement of the Space Revolution in the 1950s. However, thousands of satellites now are buzzing about Earth, with countless more on the way. Supriya Chakrabarti, a senior lecturer of physics at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, stated in an editorial published on Space.com, that after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s 1st human-made satellite, in 1957, a gradual but consistent wave of satellites reached LEO, with somewhere around 10 and 60 launched yearly until the 2010s. Since then, that rate has skyrocketed, with more than 1,300 new satellites being launched into LEO in 2020, and more than 1,400 satellites launched in 2021, Chakrabarti wrote. As per the United Nations’ Outer Space Objects Index, there were approximately 7,500 operational satellites in LEO as of September 2021.
In the coming decades, the number of objects in LEO, a zone that extends up to 1,424 miles (2,000 kilometers) above Earth, will grow at an exponential pace. This is a direct result of private firms establishing their own mega-orbital networks, each comprising of thousands of small satellites, that will be used to construct quicker web networks and provide a variety of other applications, such as analyzing environmental issues, etc. According to Aaron Boley of the University of British Columbia, greater activity is currently occurring mostly as a result of falling costs. “We know that SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon, and StarNet/GW have suggested a total of 65,000 satellites when all stages of their plans are concluded,” Boley told Live Science. In total, “around 100,000 satellites have been planned,” he noted.
Rwanda also unveiled the Cinnamon megaproject, which might comprise around 320,000 satellites, in October 2021. It is unknown when this venture will become a reality, however, as per a tweet from the Rwanda Space Agency, the government has sought authorization to commence this project. Nevertheless, as emphasized by a May 2021 research co-led by Boley and published in the journal, Scientific Reports, all of these new satellites bring with them a slew of new challenges. “It creates a space congestion control concern, it exacerbates the multiplication of space debris, it interferes with astrophysics as well as stargazing, and the space launches and reentries generate air pollution,” added Boley.
“We’re still attempting to figure out the degree of the effects.” As even more satellites are deployed into orbit over the next few decades, the probability of crashes and resulting space debris is expected to skyrocket. LEO already has at least 128 million bits of junk. As per the Natural History Museum in London, approximately 34,000 of them are larger than 4 inches (10 cm), and there are expected to be many more in the future.