Outer space continues to get more and more dangerous and more “congested, contested, and competitive” than at any point in history. In 1976, for example, only about 750 satellites (PDF) were in orbit around the earth; as of January 5 this year, there were 12,480, with tens of thousands more expected in the years to come. SpaceX alone has been granted licenses to launch 12,000 more Starlink satellites over the next five years as part of its megaconstellation efforts. Other companies and countries are following suit: Amazon plans to launch over 3,000 satellites, Britain's OneWeb plans to launch nearly 100,000, and China plans to launch nearly 13,000. In 2013, there were approximately 21,000 pieces of debris (PDF) about the diameter of a softball or larger, and about 500,000 pieces at least the size of a marble; in 2022, those numbers have grown to 36,500 and 1 million respectively. Any debris in space can be incredibly dangerous: While a wrench dropped by a sailor sinks harmlessly to the bottom of the ocean, a wrench dropped in space becomes a 7,000 meter per second projectile (PDF) capable of destroying a satellite or space station.
Unsurprisingly, near-miss collisions are on the rise: Not only did the recent Russian anti-satellite test create debris that jeopardized the lives of the astronauts on the International Space Station, it is estimated that orbital objects will cause a typical satellite operator (with 50 satellites) to receive up to 300 close-call alerts a week. With 4,852 active satellites, that is approximately 29,000 collision alerts per week, with likely hundreds of those resulting in the operator having to maneuver to avoid a collision. Given the projected increase in numbers, the problem of collisions is about to get much, much worse.