A flood of new SpaceX satellites has started a fight over space pollution

A long exposure shows Starlink satellites flying overhead in April 2020.
A long exposure shows Starlink satellites flying overhead in April 2020.
Image: Reuters/Ritzau Scanpix/Mads Claus Rasmussen
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SpaceX’s ability to launch spacecraft in huge quantities shouldn’t be underappreciated. In less than two years, SpaceX launched more than 1,000 new satellites for its Starlink constellation, becoming the world’s largest satellite operator and increasing the number of active satellites by nearly a third.

How extraordinary is that?

Not very, according to SpaceX, which is pushing back against environmental complaints that could have major consequences for satellite operators trying to launch huge new constellations in low-earth orbit.

In the US, satellite activity is regulated by the Federal Communications Commission, which is responsible for ensuring that spacecraft transmitting under US jurisdiction don’t interfere with each other and that the US meets its international space treaty obligations.

In practice, the FCC is a venue for companies battling over valuable real estate in orbit and on the radio spectrum. With SpaceX far ahead of potential competitors in the internet satellite business, it has a target on its back. But it also has to reckon with the other burden of being the first mover: the unanticipated consequences of all those bold moves.

One of those surprises was the fact that SpaceX satellites, particularly shortly after launch, are unusually visible from earth. Astronomers fear that as the number of satellites grows, some very expensive terrestrial telescopes won’t be able to work as well. To its credit, SpaceX has stepped up its efforts to reduce the glare.

When astronomers first came to grips with the problem of SpaceX’s satellites, one law student suggested that US environmental regulations could give astronomers a chance to challenge SpaceX’s license to operate its satellites. Experienced attorneys I spoke to at the time thought there was little chance that an outside lawsuit, making arguments not mentioned in the pre-license debate, would threaten SpaceX’s activities.

Now SpaceX is seeking to modify its license by shifting more than 2,000 planned satellites from an orbit above 1,000 kilometers down to lower altitudes between 540 km and 570 km. One of its competitors, ViaSat, has asked the FCC to perform a full environmental review of this request, an action that becomes more likely in the midst of a regulatory procedure.

“Most things that the FCC does are not going to have a significant environmental impact,” John Janka, an attorney who works on regulatory issues at ViaSat, told Quartz. “SpaceX is asking for 42,000 operating satellites which have a lifetime of five years. Over a 15-year FCC license term, we’re talking about well over 100,000 satellites. This is unprecedented and it is appropriate for the agency to consider these consequences.”

ViaSat’s concerns have included traditional issues like radio interference and the potential for orbital collisions and debris. These technical issues are the bread and butter of satellite regulation, but the unusually large number of satellites in SpaceX’s constellation increases the complications.

ViaSat notes that SpaceX originally said its satellites would become inoperable at a rate of less than 1%, but losses have been closer to 2.8%.  Failed satellites that can’t be controlled eventually fall out of orbit and burn up, but in the meantime present a higher risk of collision. The lower orbit of these spacecraft is also more crowded than the old one, and the satellites will by flying closer together.

Astroscale, a company developing technology to service satellites and clean orbital debris, concurred with ViaSat that the FCC needs to do more analysis on the risk of Starlink collisions. Charity Weeden, a policy executive at Astroscale, wrote that there is “not yet sufficient certainty or evidence of the modification’s increase in space safety” and that SpaceX’s arguments “lack mathematical substantiation.”

ViaSat’s list of concerns includes less widely discussed ways that space activity can pollute. Rocket exhaust and spacecraft, from defunct satellites to rockets, burning up in the atmosphere can leave behind particulate pollution. The Aerospace Corporation released a preliminary estimate last year that this could increase from the current annual level of “roughly 100 metric tons to between 800 and 3,200 metric tons.” The researcher who led the study, William Ailor, told SpaceNews that “given the present and anticipated increase in large constellations, there is potential for environmental impact.”

SpaceX, which declined interview requests on this topic over the last month, isn’t impressed with ViaSat’s complaints. Its lawyers called ViaSat’s arguments “anti-competitive gamesmanship” that is “self-serving and misguided,” and complained about its “feigned interest in environmental protection.”

In its filings, SpaceX argues that lowering its satellites would actually decrease their impact on astronomers, an idea endorsed by the American Astronomical Society, and make them safer, since failed satellites will burn up sooner at lower altitudes. In the end, its asserts that since these specific satellites were already approved for launch, any environmental concerns about its modifications should be judged in comparison to that status quo.

That argument could win at the FCC, but the timing of the dispute might hurt SpaceX. The top FCC official when it approved SpaceX’s license, Ajit Pai, stepped down with the new administration. Now Jessica Rosenworcel is the acting chair, and she has expressed concern about space debris before.

“The Biden administration has indicated that it intends to focus on environmental issues and…that it is committed to a science-based analysis underlying its policy-making,” Janka says. “Assuming they are going to do what they say, I imagine they would be interested in looking a these issues.”

For the rest of us, there’s a bigger issue: SpaceX is hardly the player with plans to loft thousands of new satellites; ViaSat, too, plans to expand its network. Orbital collisions and the potential for atmospheric pollution as spacecraft burn up in orbit are only going to get more likely, and it might behoove someone to look into it rigorously.

SpaceX argues that the environmental regulations at hand can only be applied by the FCC if “extraordinary circumstances” suggest its activities may have a “significant impact.”

The incredible growth in satellite deployment in the recent years seems extraordinary, but don’t take my word for it. Consider how a less modest SpaceX described its own work to the FCC when requesting this very modification, noting the “unprecedented deployment of hundreds of satellites within months of the Commission granting SpaceX’s first modification.”