First 1,800, then 12,000, later 55,000: the host of satellites grows and grows. In order to be active globally, however, some requirements are still missing. Specialists warn of the side effects.
Starlink will be available globally from September, announced CEO Gwynne Shotwell of Elon Musk’s space company SpaceX. The President told Reuters: “We have successfully deployed around 1,800 satellites and once they are in operational orbit we will have continuous global coverage.” To supply satellite internet. Experts are critical of the mega-constellations and the first lawsuits are underway.
More satellites than stars in the sky
Meanwhile, voices are increasing who want to stop the massive accumulation of satellites in Earth orbit. Recently, for example, there has been a lawsuit in the USA against the license issued by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) Starlink. The licensing authority had to take into account the US federal environmental law Nepa (National Environment Policy Act) in the allocation, is the allegation. At its core, it is about the impairment of the night sky. Astronomers and stargazers complain that in the foreseeable future there will be more satellites than stars in the sky. Astronomers describe the 1,800 satellites as “brighter than 99 percent of the satellites currently in orbit”. That is cause for concern. Starlink is now trying to lower the reflections. Now lawyers are arguing about the chances of the lawsuit.
All US authorities are supposed to use the Nepa, but there are huge exemptions. The FCC has had a categorical Nepa exclusion for almost all of its activities since 1986 – although NASA, for example, has to fulfill the obligation. There is no authority that uses such a far-reaching exclusion, say civil rights activists. Given the size of the current Starlink license for 12,000 satellites, it could be overturned in court, it is said. One expects that the FCC must at least adhere to the same rules as NASA. If all instances are fought through, the chance decreases. The Supreme Court is very conservative and has a reputation for wanting to reduce environmental regulations.
Experts see another problem in the introduction of aluminum oxide into the atmosphere. Satellites usually consist of aluminum, which is converted into the ozone-depleting oxide when it burns up. A recent study by the University of British Columbia in Vancouver estimates 2.2 tons of material from dead Starlink satellites – per day. It was recently published on Nature. Currently, three percent of the Starlink satellites are said to be junk. The oxide is also released during rocket launches. This creates temporary holes in the ozone layer, the authors write. In addition, the oxide reflects certain wavelengths and this could possibly increase the reflectivity of the planet. In order to reduce global warming, the idea used to be to lower solar radiation by adding aluminum oxide to the stratosphere. The geoengineering project was abandoned because there is not enough knowledge about the side effects. The scientists criticize that this very procedure is now being carried out as an unaccompanied experiment with an uncertain outcome.
Kessler effect threatens space travel
Not only Starlink’s planned 55,000 satellites, but also the similarly structured Amazon project “Project Kuiper” and its own constellation of Chinese providers will pack the orbit full of satellites in the foreseeable future. This also increases the likelihood of a collision. In the worst case, a collision with space junk or spacecraft triggers Kessler syndrome: a chain collision in which more and more scattered parts damage other satellites at high speed. This year the ISS had to avoid rotating scrap parts several times. Most recently, a study by scientists at the University of Bratislava examined the harmful effects of light pollution from the satellites.
I don’t understand why a US regulatory agency is allowed to decide who will blast orbit. It would be great to have an ultra-national organization – for example within the framework of the UN – to take care of it. The orbit is like the sea in the past: everyone can do what they want with it, there is no global control body. Unfortunately, you cannot trust the national authorities on this point, as you can see again in the USA in this case. The result at the sea: All industrial companies and countries have dumped toxic and radioactive waste in it and made even more mischief with it, which will catch up with us again at some point. Now it’s the turn of the orbit: If commercial interests do not meet any framework conditions, we will soon have to restrict our own space travel because of the littering of the orbit. It’s actually a shame, because thanks to commercial providers, it is just really gaining momentum. I will still not understand why, in the face of a blatant climate crisis, not every activity has to be tested for its climate compatibility first.