• Annemijn Witkam

The legal challenges in the battle for the sky - part 2

The battle for the sky between commercial telecommunication satellites like Starlink that are sullying the skies and astronomers, who rely on unsullied skies, is still raging on. In part 1 of this blog I wrote about the impact of SpaceX’ Starlink on science. To illustrate the power of Starlink, SpaceX’ CEO, Elon Musk sent his first tweet through Starlink in October 2019. This was an impressive debut, as it was then just a shell of its envisioned future self. Like I wrote in part 1, SpaceX has planned to ultimately launch 12,000 or maybe even 30,000 Starlink satellites into Lower Low Earth Orbit. This month’s blog focuses on the challenges commercial satellites like Starlink create for space law.


Scientific impact reviews

Starlink satellites move around the earth impacting science globally. The UN Outer Space Treaty declares that all states may exploit space in compliance with international regulation. Nevertheless, the objects that are launched into orbit are subject to national jurisdiction of the launching state. The Starlink satellites were launched from Florida, United States. Therefore American legislation is in this case binding. The US Communications Satellite Act states that the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC), responsible for regulation of communications law and technical innovation, is competent to authorize projects like Starlink.


FCC is not legally obliged to review potential scientific impacts of projects like Starlink. Nor is the international counterpart of FCC, the UN International Telecommunication Union (ITU), obliged to review or supervise member states on global scientific impact of commercial satellites. The absence of such a review is, however, problematic as astronomical research is not less important than technological innovation. Astronomy is important for numerous reasons, one of them being exploring life beyond earth. Due to the enormous number of commercial satellites launched into the astronomer’s area of observation, this is becoming extremely complex.[1] Regulation is, therefore, essential.


A supervisory authority that protects the interests of science is required. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) do not have the competence to supervise, let alone interfere with FCC or the ITU in their authority of accepting projects like Starlink. The Secretary-General of the UN is only authorized to register objects launched into outer space and hold launching states who cause damage accountable for any damage they or their object causes to other space objects.


One small step in the right direction of creating awareness for scientific impact due to the increasing number of commercial satellites is the set of guidelines created by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. These guidelines aim to globally govern and structure the exploration and use of space in order to achieve long-term sustainability of outer space activities. The guidelines are, however, not legally binding. Astronomers can, therefore, only hope that federal agents take scientific interests into account in the authorization process of projects like Starlink. If not, astronomical observations will soon become more difficult than ever.


Conclusion

In conclusion, Starlink satellites have several benefits: they generate high-speed internet and provide a greater range of global internet availability. However, the visibility of the satellites and their combined radio signals impacts science. The fact that FCC is able to authorize Starlink without the obligation of reviewing scientific impacts is wrong and should be changed. Especially with an increased international interest in commercial satellites, a call for international harmonization is essential. Let all parties have a fair chance in their battle for the sky.


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[1] D. Chuang, ‘Internet of Things Application in Satellite Communication in Power Transmission, Transform and Distribution’, International Journal of Advanced Network, Monitoring and Controls, Volume 04, No.04, 2019.