from the star-wars dept
For a few years, scientific researchers have warned that Elon Musk’s Starlink low orbit satellite broadband constellations are harming scientific research. Simply, 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 not eliminated. Another problem is there are simply so many low orbit satellites being launched, the resulting space junk is creating navigation hazards. US regulators, so far, have done little to nothing about either problem.
Enter ViaSat, which clearly isn’t keen on having its captive business market disrupted by new competition. Back in January, the company urged the FCC to conduct an environmental review of SpaceX?s low-orbit Starlink constellation, arguing that the fledgling system poses environmental hazards in space and on Earth. Since the 80s, satellite systems have had a baked in exemption from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), excluding their businesses from environmental review. But the sheer scale of what Starlink and Amazon are doing (more than 50,000 low orbit satellites in orbit) should change that equation, ViaSat argues:
“…given the sheer quantity of satellites at issue here, as well as the unprecedented nature of SpaceX?s treatment of them as effectively expendable, the potential environmental harms associated with SpaceX?s proposed modification are significant,? the company stated.
?Relying on the Commission?s decades-old categorical exemption to avoid even inquiring into the environmental consequences of SpaceX?s modification proposal would not only violate NEPA, but also would needlessly jeopardize the environmental, aesthetic, health, safety, and economic interests that it seeks to protect, and harm the public interest,? Viasat continued.”
The thing is, ViaSat is most certainly only really interested in its own revenues here, even if the concerns it’s pushing are legitimate ones. But after petitioning for change saw no reaction at the FCC, ViaSat sued the agency last May, demanding a pause of Starlink satellite broadband deployments. This week, judges made it clear that wasn’t going to happen. Though the court’s order (pdf) did grant a motion to expedite the appeal, which should speed up the legal feud somewhat.
The FCC and Space X have largely been aligned on this issue, insistent that any environmental harms can be mitigated. Space X, meanwhile, quite correctly notes that ViaSat’s environmental concerns are likely performative and its arguments not entirely consistent:
“Viasat’s newfound environmentalism is belied by its actions at every turn. Viasat failed to raise any environmental concerns in connection with any other satellite authorization, including SpaceX’s authorization to operate Starlink satellites at a different altitude and its prior request (nearly identical to the one at issue here) to lower many of those satellites. To the contrary, Viasat?a non-US licensee that has previously sought to escape Commission regulation altogether?ultimately relies on “competitive harm” to support its stay request. But stifling competition and protecting profits is not what NEPA is about.”
But again, ViaSat is correct that the concerns about space junk and light pollution are legitimate ones that aren’t being taken particularly seriously at the FCC. But the solution to that problem likely isn’t going to come at the hands of a company predominately and transparently only looking out for its own best interests.
The FCC under both Trump and Biden has been very eager to give Musk’s Starlink pretty much anything it wants, including some extremely dubious subsidies. All of this favorable treatment and subsidization comes despite the fact Starlink isn’t going to have quite the innovative impact many assume. As noted previously, the service will only have the capacity to reach 400 to 800,000 subscribers in its first few years (a max of 6 million several years from now), a small drop in the bucket when you consider upwards of 42 million Americans lack broadband access, and another 83 million live under a broadband monopoly.
So there are still legitimate questions here about whether Starlink will really be worth the cost(s), and whether Starlink will be able to remain financially viable (the majority of past efforts on this front have not). And while a self-interested competitor like ViaSat may have been the wrong messenger for worries about space junk and light pollution, the concerns themselves likely aren’t going anywhere.