More than 3,000 communication satellites are orbiting Earth, but dozens of companies are seeking approval from the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) to launch thousands more – and the proposals have sparked fears of disastrous collisions in space.
Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee on Thursday: ‘The challenge is that we are beginning an era of large, multi-satellite constellations when FCC rules on debris mitigation apply on a satellite-by-satellite basis.’
‘The U.S. government and governments around the world are failing to properly manage collision risk.’
‘If not remedied, the consequence will be losing access to space entirely, devastating not only satellite communications, but also human spaceflight, national security, weather prediction, disaster relief, climate science, and so much more.’
Former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine calls on the US government to mandate better regulations for launching satellites into orbit
The development and use of satellite communications are advancing rapidly and transforming humanity.
SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, is building a megaconstellation to provide its Starlink internet service to the most remote parts of the world.
The company has sent more than 1,700 Starlink satellites in orbit, but it hopes to have as many as 42,000 devices circling Earth.
Amazon’s Kuiper Systems is looking to send 3,326 communication satellites and OneWeb is proposing to build a constellation of 648 devices.
More than 3,000 communication satellites are orbiting Earth, but dozens of companies are seeking approval from the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) to launch thousands more. SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, is building a megaconstellation to provide internet service to even the most remote parts of the world
Bridenstine said: ‘The US government and governments around the world are failing to properly manage collision risk.’ SpaceX has sent more than 1,700 Starlink satellites in orbit, but it hopes to have as many as 42,000 devices circling Earth
Amazon, however, has petitioned the FCC to prohibit SpaceX from modifying parts of its Starlink satellites, CNBC reported in February.
While Amazon said that it ‘supports the ability of operators to modify their system designs,’ the company argues the changes are too complex and should not be approved – thus grounding future Starlink batches.
Viasat, an American communications company, has also petitioned the FCC to investigate internet satellites, claiming the constellation poses environmental hazards.
The document cites a number of grievances including SpaceX’s satellites failure rate to devices colliding in orbit and re-entry pollution risks.
John Janka, Viasat’s chief officer for global government affairs and regulatory, told DailyMail.com last year: ‘There has been strong concerns raised among a wide number of players in the industry this summer about the satellite’s orbital debris, space safety and interference issues.’
Then there is Kuiper Systems that is looking to send 3,326 communication satellites and Lond-based OneWeb is proposing to build a constellation of 648 devices. Bridenstine urges the US to work with international partners that are also launching communication satellites into space
Pictured is a figure Bridenstine presented to Congress, which shows the rise in debris and collisions over the next 30 years
‘It is not just SpaceX, these concerns are about mega constellations in general – anyone proposing to send thousands and tens of thousands of satellites into orbit.’
And Bridenstine echoed these same concerns on Thursday.
‘Dramatic increases in space collisions, and new space debris, are expected within just a few years,’ Bridenstine said during the briefing.
‘In the longer-term satellites are destroyed [by debris and collisions] faster than they are launched.’
Bridenstine proposed solutions during the briefing, putting much of the responsibility on Congress and the FCC.
The 46-year-old former Congressmen, who is now a member of the board of directors of two companies, including Viasat, explained Congress needs to delegate the power so the FCC can approve satellite constellations based on an aggregate collision risk metric and not one satellite at a time.
‘The FCC proposed this rule in April 2020, but it was never implemented. It was the right policy then and it is even more the right policy today,’ he continued.
A second proposed solution would be for the U.S. government to mandate the FCC define the limits on the nature and number of satellites that can exist in low-Earth orbit.
‘The FCC has said there are limits, but there has been no action,’ Bridenstine added.
Another solution urges the U.S. to work with international companies that are also launching communication satellites into space.
‘If other nations are not included in this process, they will claim the same territory with disastrous consequences. America’s allocation must then be fairly distributed to companies in a way that ensures competition in the marketplace,’ said the former NASA administrator.
‘Finally, Congress should have the FCC analyze and report on the effects these constellations will have on launch, the International Space Station, the environment, astronomers, and future space exploration.’
Bridenstine is not the only space expert who foresees trouble ahead, as others suggest the lack of international regulation for communication satellites will cause a ‘wild west’ free for all in space, according to Paul Kostek, a space policy specialist from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
There are longer-term concerns that this ‘free for all approach’ to space will one day result in a disastrous collision that could lead to a loss of connectivity on Earth or at an extreme case, loss of life if a crewed spacecraft were to be hit.
Kostek warned that this may have to happen before government’s finally agree on a set of regulations to restrict firms operating in the commercial space industry.
The need for regulation has become more pressing after satellites from OneWeb and SpaceX Starlink came close to hitting each other in April
Bridenstine is not the only space expert who foresees trouble ahead, as others suggest the lack of international regulation for communication satellites will cause a ‘wild west’ free for all in space
‘As a consequence you get into this whole discussion of how is space going to be managed, Kostek told MailOnline, speaking about the vast number of satellites due to launch.
‘It really is the wild wild west, or in this cast the wild wild space,’ he added, saying ‘what is all of that going to mean, how are people even going to manage space.’
‘You’ve got astronomers upset because their night vision is ruined because of the number of satellites up there and the traffic management problem.
‘How do you manage all these satellites to avoid collisions, to protect essential services such as GPS and other communications.’
There is already some evidence of these mammoth constellations of satellites causing problems for each other, not just for astronomers on Earth.
OneWeb and SpaceX, the powerhouses in the internet satellite industry, had a dangerously close encounter on April 4, with two satellites from each firm coming within just 190ft of each other as they crossed orbits.
The near miss happened after OneWeb’s launch on March 30th, which sent 36 satellites into orbit and had to pass through a sea of Starlinks on the way.
This is the first known collision avoidance event since space exploration companies started populating space with internet beaming devices – and some may suggest, it won’t be the last.
ELON MUSK’S SPACEX SET TO BRING BROADBAND INTERNET TO THE WORLD WITH ITS STARLINK CONSTELLATION OF SATELLITES
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched the fifth batch of its ‘Starlink’ space internet satellites – taking the total to 300.
They form a constellation of thousands of satellites, designed to provide low-cost broadband internet service from low Earth orbit.
The constellation, informally known as Starlink, and under development at SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond, Washington.
Its goal is to beam superfast internet into your home from space.
While satellite internet has been around for a while, it has suffered from high latency and unreliable connections.
Starlink is different. SpaceX says putting a ‘constellation’ of satellites in low earth orbit would provide high-speed, cable-like internet all over the world.
The billionaire’s company wants to create the global system to help it generate more cash.
Musk has previously said the venture could give three billion people who currently do not have access to the internet a cheap way of getting online.
It could also help fund a future city on Mars.
Helping humanity reach the red planet is one of Musk’s long-stated aims and was what inspired him to start SpaceX.
The company recently filed plans with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 4,425 satellites into orbit above the Earth – three times as many that are currently in operation.
‘Once fully deployed, the SpaceX system will pass over virtually all parts of the Earth’s surface and therefore, in principle, have the ability to provide ubiquitous global service,’ the firm said.
‘Every point on the Earth’s surface will see, at all times, a SpaceX satellite.’
The network will provide internet access to the US and the rest of the world, it added.
It is expected to take more than five years and $9.8 billion (£7.1bn) of investment, although satellite internet has proved an expensive market in the past and analysts expect the final bill will be higher.
Musk compared the project to ‘rebuilding the internet in space’, as it would reduce reliance on the existing network of undersea fibre-optic cables which criss-cross the planet.
In the US, the FCC welcomed the scheme as a way to provide internet connections to more people.