HAMPTON, Va. (January 22, 2020) – On Saturday, 143 new satellites will be on a collision course in space that threatens existing satellites, including Hampton University’s own Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere (AIM) satellite. AIM is the first and only NASA mission to be 100% led by an HBCU. As the only HBCU in this arena, Hampton University fears the potential negative impact that Space X Corporation’s Transporter-1 launch will have not only on our satellite, but many others.
AIM is one of several NASA satellites that is at-risk because of the expected January 23rd launch of the large “cloud” of satellites by the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The AIM satellite is at-risk because it carries no propulsion fuel on-board to dodge other objects headed for a collision. A significant risk reduction could be realized by dropping the Transporter-1 orbit insertion altitude just 50km below the 530km AIM orbit altitude.
Other missions that could be affected by the SpaceX launch include SWIFT, Hubble Space Telescope, CYGNSS and FGST. This issue doesn’t end today; Transporter-1 is the first in what is planned to be a series of launches by SpaceX approximately every four months that will add additional satellites to an already overcrowded area in orbit around our planet.
“I believe this issue is among the first of many conjunctions between public needs and the financial goals of the private sector,” said Dr. James Russell, AIM Principal Investigator, Endowed Professor, and Co-Director of the Hampton University Center for Atmospheric Sciences. “When you put this many satellites in the same orbit, you're begging for trouble. I think it highlights the urgent need to establish some kind of regulation and control over what the private sector can and cannot do. It further emphasizes the requirement for closer cooperation between these sectors in order for both to reach their own goals. As for now, I feel AIM is caught in the middle of this dilemma.”
Since its launch on April 25, 2007, the AIM mission has been exploring Polar Mesospheric Clouds (PMCs), also called noctilucent clouds, to find out why they form and why they are changing. For almost 14 years, AIM has been monitoring the clouds to better understand their variability, their possible connection to climate change and how atmospheric changes on the edge of space are coupled to lower atmosphere weather.
Presently, no US governing authority exists to govern launch and operational activities of the public and private sectors with regard to satellite launches and their respective orbits. NASA is leading the way in coordination by publishing best practices guidelines and staying in communication with aerospace companies. But it is the responsibility of US regulatory Agencies, such as the Department of Commerce, to create federal policy, formulate the basis for laws to be enacted by the congress and establish a governing body to oversee and guide the use of the ever-shrinking space above our planet. This vital action could form the basis for a worldwide coordination effort.