Over the past few years, the night sky has changed more rapidly than at any time in human history, and the trend will continue in 2022 as our relationship with the space beyond our planet’s atmosphere grows more intimate. But there are consequences that come with changing relationships. This holds true even for something as seemingly benign as how our species interacts with the cold, dead vacuum behind the blue sky above us.
In early December, my small town held a nighttime holiday festival where hundreds gathered on our historic plaza to count down the lighting of a huge tree. Minutes after the three-story pine burst out of the darkness into a new state of multicolored glowing glory, a friend pointed up at the clear New Mexico night sky.
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“What’s that? Reindeer? Wait… no, seriously, what is that?”
I looked up toward the top of the illuminated evergreen where a string of shimmering lights moved in an impossibly straight line, appearing to emanate from the tip of the tree. The lights moved quickly across the darkened dome above us, occasionally fading in and out, but always maintaining their straight path.
I recognized it immediately.
“Starlink,” I told my friend as more people in the crowd were beginning to point at the sky. “They launched those last night.”
“Oh yeah, the satellites. There’s lots of those up there now, right?”
“Yep, and it’s just beginning.”
At the end of 2021 there were around 5,000 active satellites in orbit, according to leading orbit-watcher Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. That’s almost a fivefold jump since 2010. In the past decade, some big names have declared intentions to launch thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit to blanket the planet in high-speed internet access beamed direct from space.
SpaceX has already launched about 2,000 of its Starlink satellites in the last few years. If Elon Musk’s company, as well as Amazon, Boeing, China and others all follow through on their ambitious plans to build constellations in low Earth orbit, it could mean over 30,000 additional satellites encircling our planet 10 years from now.
At a minimum, we can expect SpaceX and OneWeb to continue to launch hundreds more satellites during 2022. Amazon plans to boost the first of its Project Kuiper orbiting broadband routers in the latter part of the year.
The question of how well we can manage all these commercial constellations to avoid potential collisions keeps some space watchers up at night. In 2019, a European spacecraft had to perform an evasive maneuver to avoid coming too close to a Starlink. SpaceX cited “a bug in our on-call paging system,” causing a communications breakdown that led to the incident.
Hugh Lewis, who leads the astronautics research group at the University of Southampton, explains that managing Starlink is actually a complicated dance of coordination involving the US Space Force 18th Space Wing and secondary satellite information providers like LeoLabs. And SpaceX is just one constellation operator.
“The key point is that it is not exclusively the domain of SpaceX,” Lewis told me. “Conversely, SpaceX have an important responsibility to maintain a safe environment for every mission making use of or passing through the Starlink orbital shell. The decisions made by SpaceX to manage Starlink have a much broader impact than we might have anticipated when the constellation was proposed and approval was granted by the [Federal Communications Commission].”
SpaceX didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
And all this comes at a time when space — at least near Earth — is also becoming crowded in other ways, with traffic to and from our planet at unprecedented levels.
Spacefarers with a heartbeat
While it’s not yet anywhere near the cadence of uncrewed launches, the amount of humans now taking joyrides to and from orbit reached a new level in 2021, and that looks set to continue in the new year.
Blue Origin, SpaceX and Virgin Galactic have all sent paying customers to space in the past year and aim to ramp up that side of their businesses in the coming months. Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are running suborbital tours to the edge of space that offer a few minutes of weightlessness and an epic view of Earth, but Blue Origin is working on a larger rocket capable of transporting people and cargo to orbit and beyond.
SpaceX already has its Crew Dragon that sent tourists to both the International Space Station and to orbit in 2021. This was just a prelude to what we’ll see in the near future.
Among the missions already on the launch docket is a partnership between Axiom Space and SpaceX that will see a commercial spacecraft loaded exclusively with paying, private astronauts visiting the International Space Station for the first time.
Commercial space flights drew massive media coverage in the past year, launched infinitely more memes than humans and provided fodder for Netflix documentaries. Depending on how 2022 goes, we will either look back on 2021 as the weird year during a pandemic when we were all captivated by billionaires and celebrities going to space, or as the moment a new era started — akin to the way history now thinks about the likes of the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart.
Which trajectory aeronautics will take in the coming year hinges, in characteristically dramatic fashion, on the world’s richest man and his magnum opus of a rocket. Dubbed Starship, the next-generation vehicle that Elon Musk is building to take humans to the moon and Mars is simultaneously newfangled in its design and ambition but also old-fashioned in its retro-futuristic aesthetic and moniker.
Starship is the vehicle Musk hopes to use to eventually transport thousands of people to Mars as we attempt to become a multiplanetary species. The logistics for this project, easily the most ambitious undertaking in all of human history, haven’t been worked out beyond building the vehicle. In the meantime, though, NASA has signed up to use Starship to take astronauts back to the moon as early as 2025.
But the far-off trips to the moon and Mars may be less important, ultimately, than the flights Starship will make closer to home. The odds are still pretty overwhelming that you and I will never set foot on either of those other worlds. But it is the potential to use space and SpaceX rockets for point-to-point trips around the globe that could transform our existence the way the Wright brothers did in North Carolina one day in 1903.
From the first time he introduced Starship (previously known as BFR), Musk has floated the idea that it could launch from various spaceports on different parts of the globe, head up to space and then reenter and land on the other side of the world. The result is a super-fast international flight that also offers the opportunity to experience weightlessness and a world-class view — the same view that people are already laying down hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to enjoy for only a few minutes via Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic.
This vision requires the construction of more spaceports, Starships and the cutting of much bureaucratic red tape, but we get to see the first test of what such a flight could look like in the coming year, perhaps as soon as early 2022. SpaceX is set to perform the first orbital flight of a Starship prototype launched from Texas. From there it will climb to orbit and then reenter the atmosphere to come in for a soft splashdown off the coast of Hawaii.
It’s a long ways from regular space flights around the world or other worlds, but the path humans took from just barely gliding over sand dunes at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to commercial international flights took only about 15 years to traverse, and that was with early 20th century technology.
Moving everything to orbit
When it comes to space, there’s always someone with a bigger vision. Traveling around the Earth via space is one thing, but what about moving significant parts of Earth’s industries into space itself?
These ideas aren’t new. The notion of orbiting resorts, gardens and even entire cities rotating around the planet with their own artificial gravity is a staple of science fiction. The slightly different twist Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos would like to popularize is that we ought to move all polluting industries — and other more unseemly operations — into space, thereby preserving the environment on the surface of Earth.
Just as with Musk’s vision for Mars, the logistics for achieving Bezos’ vision for moving factories to orbit hasn’t yet been presented in detail, but he stands ready to build the rockets to get things rolling.
In the meantime, a handful of plans to launch new, smaller-scale commercial space stations do include all the details and could make it to orbit this decade as the International Space Station creaks into its third decade of operation and NASA searches for a successor.
All this activity in orbit creates a bit of an uneasy paradox that I’ve only hinted at so far: More stuff (and people) in orbit makes it more dangerous for both that stuff and those people.
Moriba Jah, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Texas and former spacecraft navigator for NASA, says we should consider near-Earth space as an additional ecosystem worth the same protections we aspire to for Earth’s land, air and water.
“People might say outer space is infinite … near-Earth space is not,” Jah told me. “That finite resource is being utilized without any sort of coordination, planning, and so near-Earth space is in need of environmental protection.”
Jah cites the risks of space debris not only to astronauts and other future space travelers, but also for the rest of us on the surface who depend on the services spacecraft can provide.
“The reality of space is that at any point, there could be a piece of junk as small as my cellphone, or maybe even smaller, traveling at 15 times the speed of a bullet, that just pierces through one of these rockets carrying people, and then game over. There’s no shielding against that. I think people just don’t realize that,” he said. “But the next thing to think about — those satellites could get hit and then we don’t have things like position, navigation, timing, financial transactions, so on and so forth.”
For the past two years, the International Space Station has had to make at least one evasive maneuver to avoid hitting space junk. The most recent incident, in November, came in the wake of a Russian missile test that saw the country destroy one of its own defunct satellites, creating hundreds of new pieces of debris whipping around the Earth. Astronauts were forced to take shelter in the docked Soyuz and Crew Dragon capsules.
While building a system to make orbit safer may seem like a gargantuan logistical and political task, Jah believes setting the foundation for managing near-Earth space can start with some relatively simple steps: “You can’t enforce what you don’t manage, you don’t manage what you don’t know. And you don’t know what you don’t measure. So it’s all measurements — let’s measure everything possible.”
So far we have managed the area of space near Earth without major incident — even when military tests suddenly produce thousands of new bits of space junk, as has happened at least three times this century. But this next year and beyond, we will continue to spread our footprint further and wider across this most accessible little corner of the cosmos.
“I still wake up on some mornings with feelings of disquiet because the problem is growing in magnitude all the time,” said Hugh Lewis, the astronautics researcher. “At some point, won’t we reach the limits of what we can manage?”