SpaceX: Innovation or Pollution?

Author: Aavi Lund

From: East Meadow, NY, USA

Introduction


Everyone has heard of the billionaire space race. Wait, you haven't? Have you been under a rock for the last 2 months? Let me catch you up.


Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, are currently competing to see who can expand their influence into space first, while also fighting for the title of the wealthiest person in the world. Musk and Bezos both own private aerospace companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin respectively, but each with a different goal. Bezos wants to transfer all polluting industries off of Earth while Musk wants to colonize Mars. Musk, however, is far ahead. He has already developed a reusable rocket that has delivered cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.


What is the Falcon 9 Rocket?

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket is the world’s first orbital class rocket that is capable of reflight. The first stage rocket section, composed of a single 230 feet tall rocket booster, is also capable of autonomous landing. In April 2016, SpaceX performed its second successful booster landing and the first on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean. Now, SpaceX performs successful Falcon 9 launches nearly once a month. This rocket revolutionized the field of space exploration as now it only costs 65 million to transport a payload to geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), which is nearly half the cost of its competitors.


You may be thinking: wait, weren't the space shuttles the first reusable rockets? You would be right if the space shuttles actually lived up to their selling point in the 1980s. The space shuttles, although deemed reusable, were more refurbishable. There were five space shuttles, which were launched for a total of 135 flights, consisting of two solid-state rocket boosters, a large fuel tank, as well as an orbiter. However, after the first flight, engineers realized that these shuttles would require nearly “an army” of workers to refurbish the shuttle for its next flight. These issues skyrocketed the cost of launches. The Falcon 9 rocket may not technically be the first reusable rocket, but it is the first to truly live up to the term.


What is Starlink?

SpaceX, under the leadership of Musk, utilized their new reliable source of space transportation to create a constellation of satellites orbiting the earth. Currently, the constellation consists of over 1,500 satellites, but Musk’s target number is 42,000. These satellites will provide internet services around the world where a wired connection is not easily accessible. The beta program has actually already begun with great success.


What is Space Debris?


Space debris, or as NASA calls it space junk, are pieces of human-generated objects that include satellites that are no longer working, parts of rockets, or exploded remnants of objects in orbit that collide at high speeds. According to statistical models created by the European Space Agency, there are currently about 129 million pieces of space debris ranging from 1 millimeter to 10 centimeters orbiting the Earth, in addition to the 8,950 satellites orbiting as well.


How does Starlink pose a threat?


With the addition of tens of thousands of Starlink satellites, the probability of orbital collisions is greatly increased. These potential collisions will add thousands of satellite fragments to the current orbital space debris situation, polluting the orbit around Earth. Although we may not think of this as a major issue right now, as we continue to focus funds and research efforts on space exploration, this can quickly become catastrophic.


Conclusion


The technological advancements made by SpaceX over the past decade will continue to revolutionize space exploration. The additional funding and attention space research has gained as a result of Musk and his SpaceX team makes future planetary exploration even more accessible. However, the orbital pollution that has occurred as a result of our greater dependence on space will potentially be a threat to these interplanetary goals. So instead of neglecting the issue, private aerospace companies and federal agencies should allocate some of their resources to solving this issue before it gets out of hand.

 

Author: Aavi Lund


Aavi is a rising high school senior on Long Island, NY who loves physics and engineering. He hopes to become an aerospace engineer for either SpaceX or NASA.

 

Works Cited:

  1. K. Chang, Recycled Rockets Could Drop Costs, Speed Space Travel. The New York Times, (2017).

  2. M. Garcia, Space Debris and Human Spacecraft, NASA: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, (2015).

  3. n.d., About Space Debris, ESA: European Space Agency, (2020).

  4. n.d., Falcon Heavy, SpaceX, (2021).

  5. n.d., Space Debris by the Numbers, ESA: European Space Agency, (2021).

  6. S. Hall, As SpaceX Launches 60 Starlink Satellites, Scientists See Threat to 'Astronomy Itself’, The New York Times, (2019).







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