We need to regulate the satellite race — and quick
Competition and crowding in space is becoming a growing concern as one of the biggest threats to humanity’s future: The World Economic Forum (WEF) dedicated a chapter to outer space in its Global Risks Report 2022 (pdf) as more governments and private sector companies rush to take advantage of new technologies in the orbit. The result could be everything from space collisions and geopolitical tensions to a geomagnetic storm disrupting satellite-based services and causing massive, cascading economic and societal consequences on Earth.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is already monopolizing space: In less than three years, SpaceX has launched around 1.8k satellites to create a satellite internet web called Starlink that aims to bring high-speed broadband service to the world, reports a Wall Street Journal video (watch, runtime: 06:14). Starlink’s growing dominance in space means that there might not be enough room for rivals including Britain-based OneWeb, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and China’s domestic satellite industry. These new satellites operate in what is called low-Earth orbit, which is already crowded with satellites for weather forecasting or taking pictures as well as the International Space Station and the Chinese space station.
Besides the monopoly and (literal) crowding, Musk’s satellites are raising the risk of collisions: That was China’s complaint to the United Nations late last year, detailing two instances when the nation had to maneuver its space station out of the way of two separate Starlink satellites. Musk was less than apologetic over the complaint, saying there is plenty of room in space. Maybe he should have been more contrite, however, as researchers found that 58% of all known close-crash encounters in space are due to Starlink satellites — or 2.5k incidents every week.
And a collision would not be pretty… Satellites move at 17k miles per hour — 250 times faster than a car on a highway. If one of Starlink’s satellites were to hit the Chinese space station it would destroy it and kill all the people within, explains Jonathan McDowell, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, to the WSJ video.
Neither is all the junk we’re putting into orbit: Humanity is edging towards doing to space what we did to the oceans through pollution, OneWeb founder and chairman Greg Wyler writes in an op-ed for CNN. With companies promoting the quantities of satellites they send into space, not quality, there’s a greater risk of collisions that end up with a build-up of debris that can destroy whatever comes into its path, he explains. Space companies can remove failed satellites, but there is still no space vacuum that can remove the mns of pieces of shrapnel that could be created. If we’re not careful, the commercialization of satellites could ruin low-earth orbit for hundreds of years — or even permanently.
Nonetheless, space is going to get even more crowded — and soon: Satellite players are moving along with plans to launch thousands of satellites into space over the coming years. China is planning on launching as many as 10k satellites to create a new StarNet network (and compete with SpaceX, of course), according to Asia Times. Meanwhile, Project Kuiper aims to launch more than 3k satellites into orbit and OneWeb has its eye on a web of 600 satellites. Overall, around 70k satellites are expected to be launched in the coming decades, the WEF report estimates. That’s not all, with at least five new government-developed space stations planned to be developed by 2030 with powers such as China, Europe, France, Germany, India, Japan, NATO, Russia, the UK and the US currently building space infrastructure.
The solution: Space needs to be regulated — or re-regulated, let’s say: There’s already a space law in place from 1967 called The Outer Space Treaty. The treaty defines space as the “common heritage of mankind” to be explored and used “for the benefit and in the interests of all countries,” according to How Stuff Works. In the pre-Musk era of the 1960s, the creators of the treaty had not put into consideration that a company or country could monopolize space and there have been calls to amend the now outdated agreement. What could ensue is a repeat of the dynamics during the European age of global exploration, where countries with a lot of territory became substantial players in global affairs over the next centuries, argued a panel of Duke University professors.
So how would one go about regulating space in the modern day? So far, there isn’t a solid answer. A major treaty like this one could take a decade to write and there is now a global debate on how to regulate space in a uniform way that all countries can abide by. Needless to say, it’s a slow process with so many parties involved and so much to consider, McDowell adds. “Few effective governance tools have emerged in recent years to reflect new realities, such as the pressing need for an authority to govern satellite launches and servicing, space traffic control and common enforcement principles,” the WEF report writes. The new regulations need to set norms on how much can one country or company access space, controlling the trajectories of spacecraft and their subsystems, the deployment of non-nuclear weapons into space, as well as who can conduct operations on the moon — such as China wanting to mine into the lunar surface to extract Helium 3, reports Foreign Policy.