SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had rejected claims that his Starlink satellites are squeezing out his rivals in space, Financial Times reported. Musk was responding to a claim made earlier this month by European Space Agency (ESA) Chief, Josef Aschbacher, that Musk was being allowed to make the rules for the space sector.
There is little doubt that Musk's SpaceX is quite the favorite carrier for space missions and other private companies are not even close in the space race. However, SpaceX's dominance in the sector is also being looked at as an issue since it has no competitors. For instance, it has launched close to 2,000 satellites for its Starlink services but has plans to launch more than 30,000, a 2019 report had revealed.
ESA's Aschbacher had highlighted this in an interview with FT earlier this month and added that SpaceX's thousands of satellites would severely limit radio frequencies and orbital slots available for others. Musk dismissed this claim by comparing his satellites to his other products, cars, and trucks. Speaking to FT, Musk said that like there were two billion automobiles on Earth, there was space for tens of billions of satellites in its lower orbit as well.
Elaborating his thinking, Musk said that each orbital shell was larger than the Earth's surface, and by placing a shell every ten meters (32 feet) or so, there was room for tens of billions of spacecraft around the Earth. Experts, however, are not convinced by this analogy.
Spacecraft travel at speeds of thousands of miles every hour and that leaves them with very little time to correct their course if a collision becomes likely, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, Jonathan McDowell, told FT. Instead, his calculations show that there is only room for 1,000 satellites in each shell.
Collision avoidance maneuvers require hours of planning, McDowell told FT, suggesting that the space was already too crowded. SpaceX's satellites can autonomously carry out these procedures. However, a recent report alleges that they failed to do so on two occasions in 2021, risking the lives of astronauts aboard the Chinese Space Station.
Laura Forczyk, an analyst at a space consulting group, told FT that while Musk's analogy was "flippant," it did point towards a traffic management problem that is developing up in space and it needed more coordinated efforts from countries to resolve it.