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Amazon's planned satellite fleet has some experts concerned about space congestion


Amazon says it's expanding into space. On Tuesday, the company said it wants to launch thousands of satellites. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, some experts are worried about a traffic jam on the final frontier. We should also note, Amazon is a financial supporter of NPR.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: OK, so here's how Amazon's internet service is supposed to work. A person on the ground has an antenna, and they connect using satellites passing overhead. The company sees the potential to reach millions of customers who can't get an easy hookup to the web, but to do that, it needs to launch over 3,000 satellites. And while space is big, the part of the sky these satellites can orbit in is actually relatively small. They have to avoid smashing into one another.

HUGH LEWIS: I question the ability of individual companies to manage.

BRUMFIEL: Hugh Lewis is a professor of astronautics at the University of Southampton.

LEWIS: We launch all of these satellites with an expectation, if you like, that maybe it'll be OK. So let's just keep doing it. And the problem is, is that the environment doesn't work in that way.

BRUMFIEL: As companies add satellites, the number of near-misses rises exponentially. Elon Musk's company, Space X, already runs a fleet of internet satellites called Starlink. Lewis estimates that system alone had to perform more than 7,000 collision avoidance maneuvers in the past year.

Moriba Jah is an aerospace engineer at the University of Texas at Austin. He says that if two satellites do collide, they can send debris splattering across the paths of others. It's even possible there could be a chain of collisions, a pile-up on the orbital highway.

MORIBA JAH: Yeah, there's a real possibility of big collisions happening and all orbital regions becoming unusable. That's no good.

BRUMFIEL: SpaceX satellites have an automated collision avoidance system that moves them out of the way of others, but it's unclear how that system works or how it will interact with the planned Amazon satellites. In a statement to NPR, Amazon said it was already planning safety precautions. The company's satellites will actively maneuver to avoid collisions, and Amazon will share data on where its satellites are with others.

But Jah says even that may not be enough because Amazon and SpaceX aren't alone. China is planning to launch over 10,000 of its own satellites.

JAH: If it's hard enough for two American companies to de-conflict collisions. Crossing a strong cultural and geopolitical barrier is even more of a challenge, I think.

BRUMFIEL: He says there needs to be some basic rules of the road to keep everyone safe.

JAH: We need a globally managed space traffic coordination system.

BRUMFIEL: Unfortunately, for now, that seems unlikely. It's far easier for individual companies and countries to launch satellites from Earth than it is to get the world working together in space.

Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.