In May 2019, SpaceX, Elon Musk’s space exploration collaborative, launched a batch of small, tightly-packed Starlink Satellites. Although that first launch only contained 60 satellites, SpaceX plans to form a global network of over 42,000 Starlink satellites by the end of the decade – for context, there were roughly 4,000 total active satellites in orbit as of May 1, 2021. Thanks to a launch in mid-September, the company brought its total satellite count to almost 1800.
What does SpaceX (as well as Amazon and others) want to do with so many little satellites? The answer is simple: sell global internet access. Satellite constellations can provide internet connectivity to the entire planet, solving a major global information disparity with one stroke. Already, companies like Verizon are partnering with the makers of these satellite constellations to provide lower-cost, high-speed internet to rural areas across the globe. There are also some scientific benefits. For example, radio astronomers can use swarms of satellites to observe distant objects that are only visible on the radio spectrum (though this method is not without its detractors).
And yet, there is a cost – one that readers who have seen the film Gravity may have already guessed. As the number of satellites in Earth’s orbit multiplies, so does the possibility of collisions. Objects in orbit move at such incredible speeds (up to 17,500 mph) that even a collision with a tiny piece of chipped paint can damage a spacecraft. As objects in space collide, they smash into more pieces of small debris, which in turn hit other objects and create more debris, until, ultimately, there is nothing left except a vast field of speeding rubble. This phenomenon is known as “Kessler syndrome” and the possibility of its occurrence was first identified over 40 years ago. With the advent of satellite mega-constellations, the odds of Kessler syndrome happening are extraordinarily high – in fact, Kessler himself argues that it’s already begun. Without a way to regulate launches and remove existing debris, satellite-based internet (really, satellite-based anything) will be impossible for decades to come.
There are other costs imposed by satellite mega-constellations. Astronomers scanning the sky, already hindered by light pollution, now find that these fast-moving satellites reflect sunlight into their sensitive telescopes and leave destructive streaks on their images. Such targeted light pollution poses an existential threat to Earth-based astronomy: for example, the state-of-the-art Vera C. Rubin observatory currently under construction in Chile could have up to a third of its observations ruined by satellite streaking, generating losses of millions of dollars. Nor are astronomers the only community under threat here. As multitudes of satellites crowd the sky, they will severely impact our ability to view the stars, effectively erasing the already-damaged sky traditions of Indigenous communities across the globe.
We are witnessing a tragedy of the commons before our eyes. There is currently no global framework for controlling satellite constellations; it is up to individual countries to determine safety and environmental standards for launch approvals. The most relevant international agreement for Low-Earth Orbit, where these satellites operate, is the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which permits unhindered “exploration” of space so long as no country asserts sovereignty over any part of space in any way. Yet such assertion of sovereignty is precisely what is occurring: the FCC licenses companies like SpaceX to effectively take over an orbital “shell” by filling a specific region of space with an array of satellites. Often, there is no consideration of the global impacts of doing so.
Currently, the UN is responsible for assuring international cooperation in space, but its space subcommittees have sunk into gridlock on questions of future international agreements. Present outdated legal frameworks neither govern the actions of powerful private entities in space nor accommodate the entry of new spacefaring nations. U.S. leadership in the outer-space arena at the UN would send a nice message, but is unlikely to produce results.
The most practical, immediate course of action is American advocacy for sustainable space policies at the ongoing Glasgow climate summit, COP26. After all, the summit’s ultimate goal is the protection of Earth’s environment, which, as we have seen, is at huge risk from satellite mega-constellations. Moreover, representatives from almost 200 countries will be in attendance, allowing for greater international cohesion than has traditionally taken place for space agreements. Though the focus of COP26 will be on greenhouse gas emissions, the summit provides an invaluable opportunity for the US to seek international cooperation on space policy.
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