What’s up in LEO? Quarterly insights from June to September 2022

In 2019, there were 800 functional satellites in low Earth orbit. Now, there are over 5,000.

That exponential growth makes even the most seasoned space veteran say, “Wow.”

And remarkably, the industry is just getting started.

Understandably, this is causing some to ask, “Are we running out of space in space?” This fear is compounded by the number of debris left behind during the previous six decades of space operations. It’s true: we’re in a uniquely challenging collision risk environment. However, while this is certainly a cause for serious reflection, it’s not a cause for panic. This momentous period in the space economy doubles as a rare opportunity to examine how the previous space era mixes with the new, and to use innovative thinking and collaborative problem-solving to preserve LEO for future generations.

Demystifying low Earth orbit, one data point at a time

To combat fear and confusion, we must first address the feeling of mystery around LEO and the estimated hundreds of thousands of space objects (and debris) that fill this seemingly shrinking realm. And that’s exactly what we aim to do.

With help from the team of analysts and engineers at LeoLabs, we’ll use the data collected by our global network of phased array radars to “demystify” LEO for you. Every quarter, we’ll review what’s happened and help answer the questions wracking your brain, like: “What’s more dangerous to operational satellites today? Constellations or debris?” and “Which regions have the greatest collision risk now? Or might in the future?”

As you read through the LeoReport, we hope a few aspects of the solutions necessary for tracking and managing the growing traffic in LEO become clearer. Just like safer driving or flying here on Earth, safe operations in LEO requires responsible behavior, sound analytic assessments, transparent communication and effective regulation.

From the ground up: an in-depth look at the traffic in LEO from June to September 2022

Moving forward, our quarterly reports will examine three primary components of the LEO population: “Clouds,” “Clusters” and “Constellations,” with a bonus section called “Bad neighborhoods.” Each of these sections will be updated with data and insights relevant to satellite operators, regulators, and others concerned with STM and SSA.

Clouds

Over 250 objects have fragmented in LEO over the last 60 years. These events create “clouds” of fragments that spread rapidly across large volumes in space. Today, three major collision-induced clouds dominate the LEO environment: Fengyun 1C, COSMOS 1408, and COSMOS 2251. Fragments from these events spread hundreds of kilometers in altitude and likely contributed tens of thousands of additional lethal but currently non-trackable fragments (smaller than 10 cm).

From June to September 2022, the number of COSMOS 1408 debris fragments in orbit continued to decrease (from ~600 to ~500) because of atmospheric drag cleansing them from orbit. This decrease, however, didn’t lead to a decrease in monthly dangerous (PC > 1E-6) conjunctions: ~2,500 occurred in June and ~3,000 were monitored in August. This highlights the fact that collision risk in LEO is dependent on many factors beyond the number of objects in orbit. In the past, many of the COSMOS 1408 conjunction events occurred in bunches (described as “squalls” by Dan Oltrogge of COMSPOC). We observed a squall in mid-August, which led to the conjunctions mentioned above.

Overall, during this last quarter, we observed that out of the ~107,000 high-PC encounters in LEO, ~47,000 involved fragments from ten clouds of debris that have more than 150 fragments still in orbit. Put simply, roughly 45% of dangerous events observed during this period involved remnants from just ten breakup events.

Want more data and insights?

To access the full quarterly review, sign up for the LeoReport.

You’ll receive the written report, the audio version and a shareable infographic (👀 sneak peek below). We’ll also share additional content every month — delivered straight to your inbox.

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