Addressing the growing concerns over the Kessler Effect, whereby a collision of two satellites could consequently destroy the entire orbit, OneWeb Director Tim McLay has made comments about de-orbiting systems. OneWeb apparently now proposes to add additional infrastructure to its design. This means adding power budget to create thrust in ion propulsion drives that can be used for de-orbit manoeuvring.
This gives rise to two issues:
- Increased mass puts costs up (Airbus always expected the satellite costs would rise from $350k to at least $500k per unit) and there is a consequential launch cost delta. The alternative is to use up power that would otherwise be available for trimming manoeuvres in orbit, which decreases the useful life of the satellite. So either they cost more or live for shorter time periods.
- If they are reserving power to de-orbit that would otherwise be used for station keeping manoeuvres, what happens if there is a space debris alert that requires a manoeuvre? The satellite would deplete power reserves leaving it inadequate for a controlled re-orbit.
But none of this does away with the Kessler effect. No-one has ever put 900 satellites into constellation before. Doing so with satellites that are designed to be cheap, not resilient, that undergo virtually no testing and are made by robots which has not been done before using components that have not been space qualified before is a recipe for disaster. Any government official giving OneWeb a Space License, and accepting on behalf of his taxpayers the Unlimited Third Party Liability that goes along with it would be reckless in the extreme.