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SpaceX’s Starlink and the future of space regulation

By Pamela Freeman, June 3, 2021—

For a few nights in May, Albertan stargazers had an unusual sight — a string of lights streaking across the sky. To disappoint those with wild imaginations, the lights came from SpaceX’s Starlink. Starlink, a megaconstellation of thousands of satellites that orbit together, promises to deliver high-speed internet to the entire world, notably to those remote and rural communities where access is scarce at the moment. Starlink is pursuing a noble cause and is overcoming the limitations in reach and capacity of current cable or satellite internet access, though it does come with limitations itself.

Satellites, especially ones as close, bright and numerous as Starlink, have launched concerns about the sustainability of space development. This relates to the increase in space debris and the lack of regulation associated with it, as well as a loss of connection to the night sky, which is concerning for professional and cultural aspects alike.

Starlink satellites are about 65 times closer to the Earth than traditional internet satellites and do not orbit with the rotation of the Earth. This design provides low latency, high speed and reliable internet but also requires hundreds or thousands of satellites to do so. Starlink has been approved by the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for 12,000 satellites and has asked for approval for 30,000 more. At the end of 2020, there were just over 3,300 operational satellites total in space with almost 1,000 of those a part of the Starlink fleet. Dozens of Starlink satellites are being launched every few weeks in 2021. Starlink — along with other megaconstellations in development from Amazon and OneWeb — will dwarf the current amount of satellites in space.

There is an increased likelihood of collisions and production of space debris with this number of satellites. There are two scenarios for when satellites reach the end of their lives. Ones in closer orbits will fall into the atmosphere and burn up, with any residual material falling to Earth aimed at the “spacecraft cemetery.” Ones in farther orbits can be pushed even further into a “graveyard orbit.” Satellites may also fail prematurely — at the end of 2020, about three per cent of Starlink satellites had done so. This is not an unusual fraction but is of concern since the number of satellites is so large. Inoperable satellites are a collision threat and may contribute to a chain reaction of space debris production. Operable satellites are not immune to problems — the European Space Agency (ESA) has already had to maneuver around a Starlink satellite to avoid a collision. Space debris is of concern as we currently have no way to collect it — and the more space is developed, the higher risk for catastrophic consequences.

There are five United Nations treaties on outer space that contain relevance on damage and liability related to space objects. Otherwise, there are limited international regulations on space development, notably on the appearance and brightness of satellites.

The lack of regulation also relates to Starlink’s impact on astronomy and stargazing. It doesn’t need to be argued that a connection to the stars is weaved throughout human history. Dark skies are appreciated for cultural and religious purposes, for amateur astronomers, for artists and authors, for any child looking up in wonder. Indigenous communities, in particular, have a practical and spiritual relationship with the sky and traditional knowledge is reflected in sky stories. Adopted into the 1994 Universal Declaration of Human Rights for Future Generations was “the right to an uncontaminated and undamaged Earth, including pure skies,” noting that people are “entitled to its enjoyment as the ground of human history of culture.” The sky belongs to everyone.

Professional astronomy represents a small portion of people who appreciate the undeveloped night sky, but it has a prominent role in knowledge and technological development. Ground-based astronomy at optical, infrared and radio wavelengths may be adversely impacted by Starlink. Starlink’s initial design, visible to the naked eye, produced bright streaks in optical images. With the wide field of view of future optical telescopes, satellite contamination will be formidable. Starlink is putting effort into mitigating these effects. A first trial included a dark coating on the satellites, which reduced the brightness moderately in the optical regime, but led to surface heating and increased radiation in the infrared. Starlink satellites now contain visors that deploy once in orbit to prevent reflection. This reduces their brightness greatly, but the near future will determine the viability of this method. 

For radio astronomy, telescopes are sensitive to direct and indirect illumination and “radio-quiet zones,” named for regions with severely limited transmission, are hard to maintain from overhead. The International Telecommunication Union has protected certain frequencies for radio astronomy for decades, but modern capabilities mean that radio astronomy operates at many frequencies overlapping with technology. 

These concerns around Starlink can be mitigated, to an extent, based on corporate goodwill and technological capacity. They may also be justified as internet access is seen by many as a human right. Astronomers searching for simple amino acids in space can be argued to be secondary to connectivity in a digital world. In Canada, there is a stark digital divide that hits the territories and First Nations reserves hardest. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has target download, upload and data transfer capacities that were not recognized at all in the territories and in only 34.8 per cent of First Nations reserves. Starlink infrastructure could provide a first step to reducing the divide, but is by no means an overarching solution

Currently, the system is to launch first, regulate later. In response to megaconstellation development, an Independent Working Group of Astronomers has recommendations for the Canadian government on regulating megaconstellations and the International Astronomical Union developed a report on Dark and Quiet Skies. The benefits for reducing the digital divide are large, but they also come with non-negligible impacts and sets a dangerous precedent in space development. Space development must be sustainable. Cooperation from corporations, researchers and governing bodies can direct valuable development while preserving the vast benefits and wonder of the night sky.

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