Debate Continues Over What To Do About The Fact That Starlink, Other Low-Earth-Orbit Satellite Systems Are Causing Research-Harming Light Pollution

For years, scientific researchers have warned that Elon Musk’s Starlink low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite broadband constellations are harming scientific research. Simply put, the light pollution Musk claimed would never happen in the first place is making it far more difficult to study the night sky, a problem researchers say can be mitigated somewhat but never fully eliminated.

Musk and company claim they’re working on upgraded satellites that are less obtrusive to scientists, but it’s Musk, so who knows if those solutions actually materialize. Musk isn’t alone in his low-orbit satellite ambitions. Numerous other companies, including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, are planning to fling tens of thousands of these low-orbit satellite “megaconstallations” into the heavens.

One 2020 paper argued that the approval of these low-orbit satellites by the FCC technically violated the environmental law embedded in the 1970 U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Scientific American notes how the FCC has thus far sidestepped NEPA’s oversight, thanks to a “categorical exclusion” the agency was granted in 1986 — long before LEO satellites were a threat.

Last week yet another study emerged from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO, full study here), recommending that the FCC at least revisit the issue:

“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. The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recommends that agencies “revisit things like categorical exclusions once every seven years,” Von Ah says. But the FCC “hasn’t really done that since 1986.”

Despite the fact that low-earth orbit solutions like Starlink generally lack the capacity to be meaningfully disruptive to the country’s broadband monopolies, and are, so far, too expensive to address one of the biggest obstacles to adoption (high prices due to said monopolies), the FCC has generally adopted a “we’re too bedazzled by the innovation to bother” mindset until recently.

The FCC this year did recently decide to roll back nearly a billion in Trump-era subsidies for Starlink (in part because the company misled regulators about coverage, but also because the FCC doubted they’d be able to deliver promised speeds and coverage). And the FCC did recently enact laws tightening up requirements for discarding older, failed satellites to address “space junk.”

But taking a tougher stand here would require the FCC taking a bold stance on whether or not NEPA actually applies to the “environment” of outer space and low-Earth orbit, which remains in debate. This is an agency that can’t even be bothered to publicly declare with any confidence that telecom monopolies exist or are a problem, so it seems pretty unlikely they’d want to wade into such controversy.

Like a lot of Musk efforts (like the fatal public potential of misrepresented “full self driving” technology), the issue has been simplistically framed as one of innovation versus mean old pointless government bureaucracy. This simplistic distortion has resulted in zero meaningful oversight as problems mount, something that impacts not just the U.S. (where most launches occur), but every nation on the planet:

“Our society needs space,” says Didier Queloz, an astronomer and Nobel laureate at the University of Cambridge. “I have no problem with space being used for commercial purposes. I just have a problem that it’s out of control. When we started to see this increase in satellites, I was shocked that there are no regulations. So I was extremely pleased to hear that there has been an awareness that it cannot continue like that.”

I’d expect this issue gets punted into the bowels of agency policy purgatory. Even if the agency does act it will be years from now, and unlikely to apply to the satellite licenses already doled out to companies like Starlink and Amazon. And while there are several bills aimed at tightening up restrictions in the space, it seems unlikely any of them are going to survive a dysfunctional and corrupt Congress.

That means that the light pollution caused by LEO satellites will continue to harm scientific researchers, who’ve been forced to embrace expensive, temporary solutions to the problem that are very unlikely to scale effectively as even more LEO companies set their sights on the heavens.

Source: Debate Continues Over What To Do About The Fact That Starlink, Other Low-Earth-Orbit Satellite Systems Are Causing Irreversible, Research-Harming Light Pollution | Techdirt

Robin Edgar

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