To be fair, it’s not just him. Other countries and gazillionaires are planning to send their space junk into orbit too. But Musk is ahead of the pack, and it would be a good idea to do something about it before things get too crowded up there.
“Constellations” of thousands of satellites promise internet everywhere, with profits for the owners of the constellations. It makes sense for enormous countries like Russia and China to consider this, and they are doing that.
But there are a number of problems. Musk’s Skylink is ruining optical astronomy.
A traffic jam is forming at the altitude these satellites orbit. There has been one near miss already.
Improved communications between satellite operators are also necessary: in 2019, the European Space Agency moved an Earth observation satellite to avoid colliding with a Starlink satellite, after failing to reach SpaceX by e-mail. Internationally adopted ‘right of way’ rules are needed to prevent games of ‘chicken’, as companies seek to preserve thruster fuel and avoid service interruptions.
Then there are the atmospheric effects from carbon black and alumina in the rocket fuels to put the satellites up there and from the destruction of the satellites as they are de-orbited. This may work against global warming, but the experiment is being done without any planning.
Oh, and some chunks of satellite may make it to the ground.
There are reasons for hope. SpaceX is showing some leadership with rapid end-of-life deorbiting, automatic collision avoidance, and visors to reduce light pollution, even if these are not yet sufficient. Spacefaring countries, moreover, recognize that debris threatens all satellites, including military satellites. Some are strengthening their national regulations, including by incorporating non-binding international guidelines into binding national laws. However, there is little recognition that Earth’s orbit is a finite resource, the space and Earth environments are connected, and the actions of one actor can affect everyone. Until that changes, we risk multiple tragedies of the commons in space.
It’s an easy paper to read and has references to others.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner