Enlarge /. The solar eclipse and ISS transit in August 2017.
With much of the world slowing down in the midst of COVID-19, this cannot be said for the emerging small satellite broadband industry. In recent weeks, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced that he hopes to switch the company's Starlink broadband service to public beta in about six months. On the same day, the Federal Communications Commission unanimously approved new rules for preventing debris and collisions in space (these rules have been revised to not interfere with NASA, but still require further analysis, tracking, and disclosure by satellite companies). . It's a small snapshot of the ongoing debate: proponents of astronomy say we're running out of time to maintain pristine night sky views. Companies that send satellite constellations into space say they mitigate the threat that their satellites could pose to Skywatcher.
The low-cost satellite fleets will certainly be beneficial for telecommunications and earth observation customers, especially customers who live in remote areas. Masses of satellites shorten the "repetition time" between satellite passes and make it easier to stay in touch or get frequent pictures in the event of natural disasters.
However, astronomers warn that the satellites could ruin scientific observations without care and could make it difficult for groups such as Native Americans who view the sky as part of their culture. Space organizations in Europe and the USA are already ringing alarm bells in reports and press releases. The European Southern Observatory (which operates the Very Large Telescope in Chile, among others) recently warned that its observatories would be "moderately affected" if constellations started at current rates. The National Science Foundation's Vera C. Rubin Observatory in northern Chile said that almost every picture taken at dusk "would be affected by at least one satellite path".
Enlarge /. Artistic illustration of the proposed 30-meter telescope on Mauna Kea.
30 meter telescope
Previously, these astronomical observatories were able to dodge iridium flares and other bright satellites because machines only occasionally entered the observatory's views. However, satellite constellations are more difficult to avoid.
"Obviously, satellites are not new; they have been in the sky for 60 years, but what has changed is the amount we are talking about," said John Barentine, director of public policy at the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) .
In March, IDA submitted a comment to the United States Environmental Quality Council on proposed changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the first such changes since 1978. With the support of Chicago-based Mudd Law, IDA argues that the satellite constellations – like for example construction activities on earth – should be subjected to standard NEPA environmental assessments. For IDA, space needs protection, just like our planet. But it could be a long way to accept this point of view.
"We operate in a wild west," said Barentine to Ars. Most of the global convention on space law stems from the 1967 United Nations space treaty, which was largely designed to avoid territorial claims to the moon – a goal US and Soviet space exploration at that time. The contract was signed long before commercial claims could be imagined, since only large governments were playing in space at the time.
Even so, Barentine pointed to recent Trump administration measures that he believed support IDA's argument to tighten environmental restrictions where possible to serve as controls for measures that the Trump administration says it primarily addresses To serve business.
In early April, for example, US President Donald Trump signed an implementing regulation to support the use of lunar resources for possible lunar settlements. Trump's actions are in line with previous presidential administrations. The United States has not signed the 1979 UN Lunar Agreement, which severely limits the non-scientific use of resources in space. In addition, Congress passed a law in 2015 to help American companies attempt to mine the moon and asteroids for human activities.
"The executive decree gave its (the US government) hand in relation to its opinion on space … that it is the policy of the United States that space is not a global community," said Barentine. "If space is not globally distributed and any country can exploit it, the US Treaty will not be responsible for the effects of astronomy, the effects of the night sky, and the cultural effects associated with it."