Do people have a right to an unobstructed view of the heavens? For most of human history, such a question would have been considered nonsensical—but with the recent rise of satellite mega constellations, it’s now being asked again and again. Mega constellations are vast groups of spacecraft, numbering in the thousands, that could spark a multitrillion-dollar orbital industry and transform global connectivity and commerce. But the rise of mega constellations also threatens to clutter the night sky, cripple the work of some astronomers and create space debris that harms people on Earth and in space alike.
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. Subsequently Congress commissioned a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) to weigh the evidence for such claims. Released earlier this month, the report suggests that regulatory action on mega constellations is increasingly likely—and shows the high-stakes international debate over satellites’ impacts on the night sky’s sanctity has only just begun. Although confined to the U.S., these decisions will have far-reaching ramifications around the world, setting not just precedent for other nations but dictating whether companies can operate in the U.S. if their satellites will harm the night sky.
“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.”
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,…