Space insurers make record-breaking loss as orbit gets cramped

'Unsustainable' losses neared $1B in 2023

The space above the Earth is getting increasingly crowded as launches become more frequent and satellites are squeezed closer together.

Space insurers paid out a record $995 million in claims during 2023, according to a report from Slingshot Aerospace. This surge in orbital launches and satellite deployments was driven largely by SpaceX's Starlink.

According to the report, 12,597 spacecraft were in orbit as of December 31, 2023, including 3,356 inactive satellites. 2,877 satellites were deployed in 2023, a 14.6 percent increase from the previous year, and there were 223 orbital launches.

Unsurprisingly, communication satellites dominated, accounting for 2,285 satellites deployed in 2023 and 79 percent of all deployed spacecraft.

It's getting crowded up there, and that's without considering all the debris whizzing around as well.

Worryingly, it appears that Geosynchronous (GEO) satellites are starting to encounter the overcrowding issues seen in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The report noted an approximate 33 percent decrease in average separation between satellites.

"The data shows that a congestion problem is brewing in GEO," said Melissa Quinn, General Manager of Slingshot Aerospace.

"Among the increased number of objects in GEO are satellites that maneuver more regularly than is traditionally seen in this more stable regime. This anomalous behavior clearly demonstrates an increasing need for precise space domain awareness in GEO to ensure operators have insights to both their satellites and neighboring satellites."

Quinn also noted problems in LEO. "There are still thousands of inactive satellites hanging out in LEO. With LEO becoming more crowded than ever, there is a real risk to satellites that provide valuable services including internet, weather forecasting, and land-use tracking."

SpaceX's Starlink, for example, accounts for 5,896 satellites in orbit, according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell. Of those, 5,822 were assessed as working, although 135 in that number were in the process of lowering their orbits prior to retirement.

Some LEO satellites have sustainable end-of-life plans, although many others do not, and it can take years or decades for their orbits to decay naturally. The report noted that satellites with propulsion capability had reached an all-time high, "potentially reflecting greater adoption of practices that contribute to space sustainability."

Chiara Manfletti, CEO of Neuraspace, told The Register earlier this year: "There's still a lack of awareness of the urgency for us to do something.

"There aren't collisions taking place every day, which is good, but if we don't do anything, it's not going to get any better. It's going to get worse."

Overall, the situation appears to be worsening, particularly for insurers, who took in $557 million in premiums but paid out $995 million in insurance claims, resulting in a record-breaking loss.

Quinn said: "The losses in the space insurance market are unsustainable. Some insurers are exiting the space industry, while the ones who remain are substantially increasing premiums to hedge against the record losses in the industry." ®

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