Politico - July 1, 2022
Broadband internet satellites are set to sweep the skies over the next decade at a scale never before seen. Just don’t ask policymakers today how exactly we’re going to manage the fallout.
The story is a familiar one to longtime watchers of technology. Making a leap forward can sometimes come with unintended consequences, often quite visibly and occasionally with new dangers. Companies hooked up homes with electricity, with phone lines, TV signals and the internet — miracles of modern connectivity — but not without communities inheriting a cityscape loaded with hanging wires and accompanying fire hazards.
Now that connectivity journey is reaching miles above the Earth, with side effects as grand as the broadband vision itself.
Tech billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are planning big investments in ambitious satellite broadband networks set to spin in low-earth orbit around the globe beaming internet signals back to those of us on the ground. That could be particularly valuable in hard-to-reach rural parts of the planet (or in war-ravaged Ukraine, as DFD recently outlined). But many rules for how these systems will operate are still yet to be written, posing practical and geopolitical challenges for aspiring market players like SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb (a troubled rival now owned by the British government).
That includes how these satellites can navigate around a fractured globe without creating a cascade of orbiting debris — all while not spoiling the night sky for stargazers. Adding thousands of orbiting satellites is poised to make the sky both chock-full of visual obstruction and brighter thanks to streaks of reflected light, which could scramble astronomy and even the migratory patterns of birds.
Astronomers have been warning about this for the past three years — at the United Nations, to the satellite companies and at international conferences.
“If we ruin astronomy using the tools of satellite mega-constellations, then we're going to pay for it big time — there's going to be a huge loss of science,” astronomer James Lowenthal told me. Putting many more satellites in low Earth orbit risks creating a cascade of debris if they collide into one another, but even absent such a chain reaction the much larger number of satellites planned for the coming decade still threatens astronomy.
At stake could be research operations run by the 32-year-old NASA Hubble Space Telescope and, as Lowenthal said, “our ability to look up as well as look down” — the satellites studying climate change, drought, floods and agricultural food production. “They are all at risk from potential debris cascades,” he cautioned.
U.S. regulators have started to update policies for reducing space junk, but those are small steps, and geopolitics is getting in the way of broader efforts to protect the night sky. Any aspiring satellite player has to negotiate market access with a host of governments, many of whom already don’t play well together.
“Russia and China are pretty much off the table for any Western LEO [low-earth orbit satellite] system,” which strains the operation of capital-intensive networks that by design “cover the whole planet,” Armand Musey, president of the Summit Ridge Group consulting firm, told me.
SpaceX has taken some action on its own to address these concerns. It reduced some Starlink satellites’ brightness by applying anti-reflective coating and visors as well as changing how they orbit, but these “DarkSat” and “VisorSat” models haven’t eliminated astronomers' fears. And these changes came years after U.S. regulators initially signed off on the launches — the government’s review didn’t take environmental factors like light pollution into account, as a 2020 academic journal article lamented.
Musey suggested nations may want to develop a pact akin to the Antarctic Treaty — formed in the mid-20th century outlining rules for demilitarizing and pursuing scientific inquiry in that largely remote region — to combat the rising risk of orbital debris. (The 1967 Outer Space Treaty does have provisions making states liable for damage caused by “space objects” and directing states to “avoid harmful contamination of space” but it lacks enforcement mechanisms.)
“You’re entering into a phase where people are launching thousands of satellites,” Musey said, and yet “we haven’t really seen the political will” for tackling mitigation.
Lowenthal is pushing to get language into FCC-focused legislation that would require satellite providers to confer with NASA and the National Science Foundation and “demonstrate that they have reached agreement about their plan to minimize negative effects on astronomy.”
One pessimistic view, Lowenthal warned, is that little will happen until debris gets so bad it becomes physically dangerous, whether from objects colliding with an astronaut in space or falling down to earth. He cited the fireball visible in the skyover the Pacific Northwest last year from a SpaceX rocket burning up in the atmosphere.
“It’s just going to be a matter of time until one of those falls on somebody’s head,” Lowenthal said. “Maybe that’s what it’s going to take to wake people up and kick the regulatory machinery into gear — I don’t know.”