The probabilities, if true, are chilling.


The Federal Aviation Administration has sounded the alarm on the danger of falling Starlink satellites, and SpaceX is not happy.

SpaceX's satellites, which are stationed in low-Earth orbit, are intended to only last five years before de-orbiting. Their expendable nature has an upside, though: they're also designed to be "demisable," or to burn up completely in the atmosphere during re-entry, posing little if any risk to those of us on the ground.

But the FAA begs to differ. In a report to Congress made public last week, the agency claims that by 2035, some 28,000 fragments from Starlink satellites falling back to Earth could survive re-entry each year.

That has unsettling implications. With so much debris, the report concludes, the chance of a stray satellite fragment hitting and killing someone on the ground will rise to 61 percent each year.

Just as terrifying is the risk that poses to aircraft, with the report concluding that there would be a 0.07 percent chance of a stray satellite fragment downing one each year — a significantly lower percentage, to be sure, but much too high for what would be an unprecedented aerial catastrophe.

Shady Science

SpaceX, which has so far launched 5,000 satellites and plans to launch thousands more, has fired back at the FAA's claims, calling the agency's analysis "nothing more than the culmination of several egregious errors, omissions, and incorrect assumptions," as quoted by Ars Technica.

It notes that the FAA's "deeply flawed" analysis, which was commissioned from the nonprofit Aerospace Corporation, is based on a 23-year-old study conducted by NASA. Other than being old, it argues, the problem is that study focused on satellites that not only were made of different materials than SpaceX's, but weren't even designed to be demisable. An unfair comparison, in other words.

Furthermore, Aerospace "did not even seek to review the Starlink demisability analysis, which should have been a fundamental part of its analysis," SpaceX said.

The near-flawless performance of its satellites is difficult to overlook, too. SpaceX claims it has already deorbited 325 of its satellites since 2020 with no debris being found, which would seemingly contradict the FAA's estimate that there would eventually be thousands of these fragments bombarding the Earth's surface every year.

"The fact that FAA simply accepted the Aerospace report without question or scrutiny raises concerns regarding FAA's technical competence to responsibly assess and regulate in this area," SpaceX said, per Ars.

Though SpaceX may have one government agency breathing down its neck, it does have another squarely in its corner: the Federal Communications Commission, which accepted SpaceX's position that its satellites are fully demisable.

As of now, the FAA is "reviewing the letter," it told Ars.

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