Should We Just Get Used to It?

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Amateur Astronomers Association, Inc. 

Lately, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and other private companies have been dominating the space launch headlines and not always for good reasons. With the near-term potential for several tens of thousands of satellites being placed by SpaceX, purportedly to provide low-cost cell phone service from space to “underserved” parts of the globe, it is quickly getting crowded up there. And these satellites are already negatively affecting professional and amateur astronomers alike. It’s a complex issue and no one yet knows how it will play out. Do Elon Musk’s, China’s and others’ plans make sense? According to Dr. Jeremy Carlo, an amateur astronomer and Physics professor, no.

“The essential limitation with any satellite broadband service is bandwidth.  You can’t simply put more birds in the air, since eventually the limiting factor is that they all must share the same electromagnetic spectrum.  … Starlink, even with a full constellation, could only support about 500k simultaneous users in the entire US.”

“So satellites – of any type – aren’t going to bring broadband to hundreds of millions of people in Nigeria or Bangladesh.  For that, fiber is the way to go, with ~1000x more bandwidth available at optical frequencies, and you can run fibers in parallel to reuse the same bandwidth. Fiber faces increasingly stiff competition soon from wireless 5G, though. Yes, that has the same spectrum limitation, but because the signals are low-power and short-range, the same frequency bands can be reused by users a few miles (or even a few hundred meters) apart.  Satellites don’t have that luxury, as their signals blanket their entire “footprint” of hundreds or thousands of square miles.” Dr. Carlo goes on to point out, “… What Starlink provides, and the geostationary services do not, is low latency, as the signal doesn’t have to travel 25,000 miles up to the bird and back.  Where is that useful?  …  Besides the altruistic concept of bringing low-cost mobile phone service to Tibet, it well serves Stock Traders who make money by manipulating millisecond-scale fluctuations in stock prices.  In theory, Starlink can provide slightly lower latency times than ground-based connections, as ground connections are often quite indirect, and signals travel slower than the speed of light in vacuum while traveling through fiber or copper.  If I can beat my competitor by a few milliseconds, I make the trade while they do not.   More money for me.” Could this be one unmentioned reason for the sudden push for LEO broadband?  It may just be the “killer app” for Starlink and other Low-Earth Orbiting broadband services. And if it can give Musk, Bezos, Branson, and the other Billionaire Space Cowboys a way to make even more billions, why shouldn’t they do it? After all, no one owns space, right? First come, first served!

One of the major problems with the privatization of space launches is that it is impossible to have oversight and governance in space without enforcement and clear laws and jurisdiction. And the concept of jurisdiction is the very fundamental problem with controlling what happens in space. In a nutshell, no one person, company or any government “owns” space. Philosophically, no part of humanity or any non-earthly civilization can lay claim to owning any part of the Universe. And even the concept of ownership is simply a human construct. As is the concept of “trash” or “junk” in space. The Universe is a cold, non-thinking environment that we little understand. [Religion notwithstanding!] The Universe does not care what’s floating in it. And humanity isn’t even a blip on the radar.

Currently, at best, countries can try to control who launches what. That was easier to control before NASA gave away much of its technology (and a lot of that came from the US Air Force and DARPA along the way). All the private companies launching today would be dead in the water without the huge base of knowledge and technology that they inherited for free. We’ve really let the cat out of the bag, haven’t we?!

But what gets launched isn’t always NASA or ESA or JAXA’s responsibility or fault. Musk, e.g., gets his approvals for his satellites from the FCC, and NASA only tells him if he can launch based on other criteria and NASA does not control what he is carrying, if they even know. Think private satellites for Israel or Pakistan, etc. with the potential for small nuclear warheads. But once his or anyone’s rockets are off the launch pad and out of our domain, it’s “any man for himself” as far as space goes. And Musk, et al, can always decide to set up a launchpad in the Bahamas … or other less-than-friendly countries!

Yes, most countries have signed the treaties and principles governing the activities of States in the exploration and use of outer space, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1967. But that’s a document designed for governments and not private companies, and even at that, it is an unenforceable agreement which has already been broken, not the least of which by the United States. (Can someone tell me why we have a Space Force in addition to the Air Force missile programs and NASA?) Also, that agreement was not only produced before the idea that private companies might launch their own rockets, and the mobile phones at the core of Musk’s Starlink program were not even invented, but before Elon Musk was born. My father used to tell me that agreements are made to be broken and they usually don’t even make good toilet paper.

So, what are the answers to questions which we barely understand? Especially with a decidedly non-Utopian human society here on Earth. It is said that life imitates art in many ways, so I’ll point to two movies that touch on these subjects. Diamonds are Forever (Sean Connery) 1971, and Outland (Sean Connery, Peter Boyle), 1981. In the first, an individual tries to extort the world by threatening to blow up cities from space with a big, honkin’ laser. In the second, it’s High Noon in space when a private company breaks the law, and the ‘Marshall’ must reign in the bad guys. In these movies, the screenwriters get to dance around many of the fundamental issues discussed here. In real life, as we now see thanks to the Billionaire’s Launch Club, it’s not such a luxury. I shudder to contemplate one of these companies reaching Mars first and claiming it as their corporate property. Or, as their own planet with their own societal rules and perhaps even their own military. Farfetched? Just a little over a century ago, manned powered flight was thought the same. And look how far we’ve come and gone since.