More Satellites, Less Space: Risk Growth in Orbit

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2023 was a booming year for space operations – more new satellites launched and more dead satellites in space, both resulting in a vast increase in the need for satellite maneuvers and a growth in risks to operators.

Space monitoring firm Slingshot Aerospace released a report titled “The State of Satellite Deployments and Orbital Operations” looking at the domain through “the lens of the satellite lifecycle” from launch to deployment to on–orbit operations to end-of-life disposal.

Managing director of the UK-based Slingshot Aerospace Ltd. Melissa Quinn said in an interview with Breaking Defense that this overarching overview is what this report so special, and that the biggest takeaway from the report’s finding is the number of “firsts” and the number of “mosts” in 2023 across many different factors.

According to Breaking Defense, the key indicators reviewed for 2023 included the number of launches, number of satellites actually deployed, number of active spacecraft, and the number of dead spacecraft still floating around.

Quinn mentioned another interesting finding from the report is that the growing congestion isn’t just in low-Earth orbit (LEO), but also in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO). She explained many of the satellites there are critical comms satellites, and that the distances between them are apparently shrinking. The report states that the average distance between satellites in GEO saw a 33 percent decrease, going from 450 kilometers in 2010 to 300 kilometers in 2023.

She also spoke about the growing turmoil in the space insurance market, which is influenced by the perception of an “increasing threat” from “adversaries.” The example she provided was the “really strange behavior in GEO” tracked last year by Slingshot, of Russia’s Luch/Olymp satellite stalking Western satellites across the belt.