Our crowded skies

THE PORTER REPORT - A monthly update on the business world from leading writer David Porter

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I recall as a toddler being transfixed by the grainy black and white movies of humankind’s first explorations into space, culminating in the first landings on the moon.

As we look up into our night sky, we may be deluded into thinking that we are still looking out onto a vast unexplored world.

But leaving to one side the recently launched space telescope’s remarkable revelations of the mysteries of deep space, we have still managed to clutter up Earth’s near orbit to an amazing extent.

According to a source published online, quoting the Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space – maintained by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) – there were 11,330  individual satellites orbiting the Earth at the end of June 2023. That is almost 40 percent up on January 2022.

That is in itself unsurprising given that 2022 saw the most objects ever launched into space in one year, with 2,474 objects leaving the planet.

However, as the report notes, in the first half of 2023 there have already been more than 1,000 objects launched, so the numbers are likely to keep going up.

Even here in New Zealand we can lay claim to our own space launch station, the Rocket Lab Launch Complex, located near Ahuriri Point at the southern tip of Māhia Peninsula.

International protocols

Keep in mind there are various international protocols involved in gaining permission to launch a satellite.

But still, the growth in the industry is staggering. Since 2018 there have been more objects launched into space than in the previous 60 years of the space industry.

And according to Encyclopaedia Britannica fact checkers, space debris – that is artificial material orbiting the earth that is no longer functional – represents a staggering problem.

Much of the debris is in low Earth orbit, within 2,000 km of Earth’s surface, though some debris can be found in geostationary orbit around 35,000 km above the equator. As of 2021, the United States Space Surveillance Network was tracking more than 15,000 pieces of space debris larger than 10cm across.

According to their article, there are about 200,000 pieces between 1 and 10cm across and that there could be millions of pieces smaller than 1cm. How long a piece of space debris takes to fall back to Earth depends on its altitude.

Because of the high speeds at which objects orbit Earth (up to 8 km per second), a collision with even a small piece of space debris can damage a spacecraft. For example, space shuttle windows have often had to be replaced because of collision with debris collisions with objects smaller than 1mm (0.04 inch).

You may have wondered to what extent the internet services we have all come to rely upon may be affected by this curious dump site we have created in near space. As with so many things, it all comes down to money.

As a sailor I have long depended upon GPS navigation for sea voyages. Thankfully satellites provide access for locations that have no cables running anywhere close such as ships, oil platforms, aircraft, overland expeditions … and my yacht.

David Porter
David Porter
THE PORTER REPORT - A monthly update on the business world from David Porter

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