Satellite Constellations Could Harm the Environment, New Watchdog Report Says

Satellite Constellations Could Harm the Environment, New Watchdog Report Says

Do people have the right to a clear view of the sky? This question was unanswerable for most of human history. But with the recent rise in satellite mega constellations, it is being asked again and again. Mega constellations are large groups of spacecraft that number in the thousands. They could be the catalyst for a multitrillion-dollar industry orbiting around the globe and transform global connectivity, commerce, and commerce. Mega constellations could also disrupt the work and make it impossible for astronomers to see the night sky and create space debris that can harm people on Earth as well as in space.

In January 2020 Scientific American was the first to report on a paper arguing that such constellations may be effectively unlawful because of environmental legislation enacted more than a half-century ago by the U.S. Congress. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), was commissioned to review the evidence. The report, which was released earlier this month suggests that regulatory action on mega-configurations is more likely. It also shows that the high-stakes international debate about satellites’ impact on the night sky’s integrity has just begun. These decisions are not only limited to the United States, but will have wide-reaching implications around the globe. They will set precedents for other countries and dictate whether companies can operate within the United States if their satellites harm the night sky.

” Our society needs space,” said Didier Queloz (an astronomer and Nobel laureate from the University of Cambridge). “I don’t have a problem with space being used commercially. It’s just out of control. I was shocked to learn that there were no regulations when we first started to notice satellites increasing in number. It was a shock to me that there were no regulations.

The mega constellation era began in May 2019, when Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX launched the first 60 satellites in its Starlink constellation. Starlink is a venture by the company to beam high-speed broadband Internet to all corners of the globe by building and maintaining a network of more than 12,000 communications satellites in low-Earth orbit. By the end of 2019, SpaceX had already launched 180 Starlink satellites. Today the constellation’s numbers have swelled to more than 3,000 and account for fully half of all active satellites in space. In September 2019 Ramon Ryan, then a law student at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, noticed how astronomers and members of the public were alarmed about the rapidly rising numbers of these satellites, all of which can be very bright in the sky when illuminated by sunlight. Although bright swarms can be beautiful, they can also cause stargaze-threatening problems for casual skywatchers. Professional astronomers fear that they will become an unmitigated disaster. They regularly photobomb facilities on the ground, as well as those in low-Earth orbits, such the Hubble Space Telescope. These satellites can also interfere with radio communications for sensitive radio astronomy instruments. These instruments require very quiet skies to be able to hear the distant universe.

Ryan’s resultant paper in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law suggested that the regulatory approval of these satellites by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may breach environmental law as part of the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) enacted in 1970. Specifically, Ryan argued that the natural aesthetic of the night sky and the profession of astronomy may be protected under NEPA–but that the FCC has so far sidestepped NEPA’s oversight , thanks to a “categorical exclusion” the agency was granted in 1986 (when it simply wasn’t licensing that many satellites). After coverage in Scientific American , a congressional staffer handed Ryan’s paper over to Democratic Senator Tammy Duckworth from Illinois. Duckworth then worked with her Democratic Senate colleague Brian Schatz of Hawaii to formally request that the GAO, which audits federal agencies at Congress’s behest, determine if the FCC’s categorical exclusion was still valid. Duckworth and Schatz also asked the GAO to weigh-in on whether the FCC should be permitted to license so many satellites within mega constellations without NEPA review.

The results of this report were published on November 2. The GAO recommends that the FCC reconsider its categorical exclusion form NEPA and examine whether it should update or revise its procedures in light the rise of mega-configurations. “We think they need to revisit [the categorical exclusion] because the situation is so different than it was in 1986,” says Andrew Von Ah, a director at the GAO and one of the report’s two lead authors. Von Ah states that the White House Council on Environmental Quality recommends agencies “review things like categorical exemptions once every seven year.” But the FCC “hasn’t really done that since 1986.”

According to the report’s recommendations the FCC should examine whether mega constellations have an impact on the environment, review its exclusion from NEPA, and codify “extraordinary circumstances” that would lead to NEPA review. According to the report’s authors, the FCC has not “undertaken or documented a complete examination of its categorical exemption to ensure that it is current and appropriate.” The FCC has said it would conduct a NEPA review in cases of “extraordinary circumstances.” However, the report states that agency regulations “does not list additional factors to explain what might constitute an extraordinary circumstance.” It is unclear whether NEPA applies to the “environment” of outer space-low-Earth orbit. Von Ah states, “This is the question.” “We didn’t decide whether it does or not.” What we were focused on was the FCC’s process for making those determinations.”

Von Ah said that the report took more then a year to complete. It includes representative views from industry, astronomers, and the FCC. He says, “It was an entirely new topic for us.” Karen Howard, also a director at the GAO and the other lead author, who also co-penned a companion technological assessment of mega constellations with Von Ah, says the report was “the first time we’ve done a technology assessment on satellite constellations and their potential environmental effects.” The findings showed there were concerns in a number of areas, not just the brightness of the satellites but also the collision risk they pose in space and the possible creation of space junk, the interference to radio astronomy caused by satellite radio transmissions and even the potential for satellites reentering the atmosphere to affect Earth’s climate or harm humans on the ground. Howard states that we expect a dramatic increase in satellites, which could pose a number of problems for optical astronomy as well as other users of the night skies. It could make certain studies .”


The FCC declined Scientific American ‘s comment request. In a written response to the GAO included in the latter’s report, however, it stated it had reviewed that report and was “committed to ensuring that its actions, including satellite licensing activities are in compliance with the requirements of [NEPA].” It noted that the White House’s CEQ was currently revising rules on NEPA regulations for federal agencies and had advised agencies to update their NEPA procedures by September 2023. In its response to the GAO, the FCC stated that it expects the FCC to review its NEPA rules after the publication of the revised CEQ rules. This will include a review of whether licensing large satellite constellations does not have significant impacts on the environment. “We expect that the FCC will review its existing categorical exclusion .”

rules and establish a process for periodic review. This is part of that assessment.

The day after the GAO report’s release, the FCC also announced the creation of a new bureau for its space activities, which will help the agency handle the applications for 64,000 new satellites it is presently considering. In a statement that was released with the announcement, Jessica Rosenworcel, Chairwoman of FCC, stated that “the new space age has turned all we know about how you deliver critical space-based service services on its head.” The agency’s organizational structures have not kept up with the increasing number of applications and proceedings. In some cases, even exponentially. You can’t continue doing things the same way and expect to lead in a new .”


Bethany Johns, deputy Director of Public Policy and interim Acting Director at the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C., said that a number of bills are currently being passed through Congress to regulate the impact of mega-stellar constellations on the sky. She says, “This is just one step in a long march to finding a policy that works well for everyone.” “It’s very complicated.” She says it’s more so because of the change in leadership of U.S. House of Representatives, from Democratic to Republican after the recent midterm elections. Johns warns that the hyperpartisan legislative gridlock that will likely result from this shift “could make it difficult to finalize policies.”

For astronomy, the threat of mega constellations may be greatest for wide, deep surveys of the sky, such as those planned for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO), a $473-million ground-based telescope paired with the largest digital camera ever built that is set to switch on in Chile later this decade. The VRO’s Legacy Survey of Space and Time is designed to investigate dark matter and dark energies in the universe. It will also be used for other high-priority investigations. If the number of satellites in the sky rises to 50,000, in line with modest mega constellation predictions from all nations, “something like 10 percent of [VRO] images will have a satellite trail in them,” says VRO chief scientist Tony Tyson of the University of California, Davis. Although science will continue to be possible, some investigations may prove impossible due to light pollution from satellites. For example, bogus satellite alerts can make it difficult to track fast-moving objects like potentially dangerous near-Earth asteroids. Tyson states, “This is going be a real show-stopper for some science.” More recent satellite applications have caused alarm, too, such as BlueWalker 3, a recently launched (and extremely bright) satellite from the Texas firm AST SpaceMobile. Designed to beam cellular broadband to the ground, BlueWalker 3 is so bright because it has a deployable antenna nearly 700 square feet in size. BlueBirds is a future satellite from AST that could be twice as big and correspondingly brighter. These satellites have yet to be licensed by the FCC. Some estimates suggest that they could outshine all other satellites and stars in the sky.

It could take months, or even years, for the FCC determine if its licensing of satellites is worthy of NEPA review. Even then, it’s unlikely that the agency will revisit previous applications like Starlink. The FCC may not conduct NEPA reviews of future constellations. In the next few years, thousands of satellites will be launched from SpaceX, as well as from rival services like Amazon’s Project Kuiper or the U.K. OneWeb constellation. However, these satellites require market access from FCC in order to operate in the U.S. Time is of the essence. The battle for the night skies continues.



    Jonathan O’Callaghan is a freelance journalist covering commercial spaceflight, space exploration and astrophysics. Follow him on Twitter @Astro_Jonny

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