Internet startup OneWeb has plans to deploy hundreds of new satellites into Earth’s orbit, and CEO Greg Wyler wants to make sure it’s done safely. Space is already littered with hazards. There are millions of pieces of debris whirling around, the result of 50 years of space travel and few regulations to keep space clean. One collision already happened.
OneWeb doesn’t want to add to the junk problem, Wyler told CNN Business, so it’s committed to removing its satellites after they finish their job. He said he thinks of the debris issue much as he thinks of environmental issues.
“There are so many ideas for satellites out there that are done without full consideration to the full cycle of the system: What happens to the plastic bottle when you throw it in the ocean?” he said. “It’s the same problem. It’s just at a different scale.” The number of satellites in our skies is expected to more than triple over the next decade as more than 7,000 new devices are added, according to one estimate.
Experts fear that, as space becomes increasingly crowded, collisions could set off disastrous chain reactions. That could mean an end to scientific exploration, GPS service, satellite TV, internet and phone service for millions of people.
OneWeb’s satellites will retain enough fuel to veer back into the Earth’s atmosphere at the end of their lives. And Wyler said they will also be outfitted with extra hardware that could make it easy for a grappling hook to snag and drag unresponsive satellites out of orbit. “These are expensive” technologies, he said. “But they’re things that we simply must do to be good citizens.”
It would take more than 2,000 years for Earth’s gravity to drag OneWeb’s satellites out of orbit if they were left alone at the end of their lives. But OneWeb has pledged to deorbit them within five years after they go offline.
A recent NASA study suggested that all satellite operators will need to adopt that standard to reduce the risk of cataclysmic collisions. Wyler said he’s been fortunate that OneWeb’s backers, which include corporate giants like Softbank and Coca-Cola, have been receptive to spending extra cash to be good stewards of space.
There’s also a business incentive: Keeping their orbital planes clean will be essential for companies like OneWeb that are investing billions in their constellations, according to Shagun Sachdeva, an analyst at Northern Sky who has researched megaconstellations and orbital debris management.
A big question is whether the broader, cost-conscious private sector will invest in adding technologies to their satellites. There are no punishments for companies that don’t abide by NASA’s recommendations or the much leaner international guideline, which is to deorbit satellites within 25 years after they shut down.
“Everybody sees space debris as a pretty big issue,” Sachdeva said. The question is whether enough will be done to avert disaster.