The Starlink project is expected to cost $10 billion, and SpaceX aims to have the “constellation” fully operational by the mid-2020s.
Sightings of the procession of satellites traipsing across the heavens initially prompted excitement and astonishment. The spectacle was so bizarre that a Dutch UFO website was inundated with more than 150 reports from people believing an alien encounter was at hand.
For astronomers, the initial excitement quickly gave way to dismay as they began to calculate the potentially drastic impact on people’s—and scientists’—views of the cosmos.
“I saw that train and it was certainly very spectacular,” said Cees Bassa, an astronomer at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy. “With that comes the realization that, if several thousands of these are launched, it will change what the night sky looks like.”
SpaceX is just one of nine companies known to be working on global space Internet communication, meaning the eventual number of satellites could be, well, astronomical.
In granting permits for commercial space projects, U.S. regulators are beginning to consider issues such as orbital congestion as well as a company’s plans for decommissioning satellites at the end of an operation. Orbital debris has become an increasingly big concern. There are already some 20,000 objects in low-Earth orbit. Only 10 percent are active. The rest is space junk—dead satellites and booster rockets.
If one tallies all the requests to date for Internet-communications satellites alone, that number would almost double.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has recommended that 99 out of every 100 satellites from these proposed mega constellations of satellites be deorbited once their missions are over to prevent the low and middle-Earth orbits from becoming demolition derbies. But, since these satellites are designed to facilitate global Internet coverage, how can they be deorbited without decreasing or eliminating supposed service?
Referring to the SpaceX project, Néstor Espinoza, an astrophysicist at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy, said: “It’s basically a private company staining our sky for everyone. It’s interesting that there’s no consensus about it. No one asked us.”
Imagine, again, that you are out for a pleasant early evening stroll. Venus is already burning brightly as other heavenly bodies gradually awaken.
Then, on the horizon, rises a body that certainly is not heavenly. It’s a celestial billboard.
Science fiction? Unfortunately, not. PepsiCo recently announced that it was working with a Russian company to place an ad in space.
A spokesperson for PepsiCo’s Russian subsidiary said the company partnered with Russian start-up StartRocket and could launch an ad for its energy-drink “Adrenaline Rush” as early as 2021. “We believe in StartRocket’s potential,” according to a PepsiCo spokesperson. She claimed that “orbital billboards” constitute a revolution in marketing communication.
The announcement, however, caused such an immediate uproar that the parent apparently company shot down the idea, saying it did partner with StartRocket on a test, but that it was just a one-time thing.
“We can confirm StartRocket performed an exploratory test for stratosphere advertisements using the Adrenaline Rush logo,” a spokesperson said. “This was a one-time event. We have no further plans to test or commercially use this technology at this time.”
Please note the phrase “at this time.”
If StartRocket can find another advertiser willing to start this celestial billboard revolution, the actual ad would use a string of small synchronized satellites called cubesats. Once in position, they would unfurl reflective Mylar sails that bounce sunlight back to Earth. The grid could spell things like “KFC,” or display the Nike “swoosh” logo.
Ads would orbit more than 250 miles above Earth, at about the same altitude as the International Space Station and most of the 20,000 other satellites and space junk circling in low-Earth orbit. In the early morning and evening, the little sails on the satellites would catch sunlight and become visible to the ground.
Anyone who has viewed the space station streaking across the night sky will attest to the potential impact of a celestial billboard. As you might imagine, astronomers—and many just plain folks—are not happy about visual pollution of the night sky.
Astronomer John Barentine, director of conservation for the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), calls orbital billboards a threat to astronomical research.
But Barentine and other astronomers agree that space advertising is on the horizon. There are apparently no laws against making cubesats spell out messages and the technology already exists to make this possible. If not Pepsi, another company with a large marketing budget may want to do something similar.
“I think it is inevitable that someone will do this,” Barentine said. “They will take the gamble that even negative public reaction will still benefit the bottom line.
“There’s not a lot that can be done other than heaping scorn upon the companies,” Barentine said. He vows IDA will continue to advocate for a night sky “free of this kind of activity and that remains as accessible to all humanity as possible.”
But advertisers may view space as the final frontier. They seem to be running out of that commodity. Advertisers glut traditional and electronic media with promotional messages. The official term is “clutter.” Then there are highway billboards, including the new ultra-bright electronic versions that change messages every 30 seconds or so. And let us not forget men’s urinals, pens and match book covers, logoed clothing, the naming of stadiums and other public buildings, bus boards, ads on 18-wheelers, those little Cessnas pulling banners. And car racing fans—especially NASCAR—are all too familiar with logos plastered all over the vehicles.
But, as indicated, advertising isn’t the only threat to the sanctity of the heavens.
This naturally leads to the question—what was the approval process for the heavens-changing Space-X project? Who or what approved it? And who or what would approve the launch of celestial billboards?
The United Nations
Obviously, since space programs transcend national borders, one might expect the UN to be actively involved in regulating space activity. But the UN’s 1967 “Outer Space Treaty” appeared to have abrogated that responsibility by declaring, among other things, that:
“States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental entities.”
Since that first treaty, the UN’s Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) has concluded only four others and published five sets of principles, not one of which deals with the commercialization of space. The last treaty was concluded in 1984; the last set of principles in 1996.
It’s probably just as well since the UN hasn’t even been able to rally nations around greenhouse gas reduction (GHG) in the face of global warming as evidenced by the failure of the 2015 climate accord—signed by 196 nations—to make a significant dent in GHG levels.
Instead, in the U.S. there is an alphabet-soup list of agencies involved in aspects of the space policy-making and approval process.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration
NASA is an independent government agency that reports to the Executive Branch. The President appoints NASA’s administrator. It is not a regulatory agency. It is, however, subject to oversight by two Congressional committees.
Since its founding in 1958, the agency has spent an estimated $645 billion in taxpayer money to fund its vast infrastructure, technology development and exploration missions. The government funds NASA and its projects using revenue from income, corporate and other taxes. Its budget for 2020 is $21 billion, a 1.4% increase over 2019.
The Trump administration says it plans to increase NASA funding by encouraging public-private partnerships. The budget provides incentives for businesses to partner with the government on space station operations, deep-space exploration and small satellite groups. In addition, there is a $150 million program to subsidize private development of low-Earth orbit missions such as the SpaceX Starlink venture.
In a recent statement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said:
“We will go to the Moon in the next decade with innovative, new technologies and systems to explore more locations across the lunar surface than ever before. This time, when we go to the Moon, we will stay. We will use what we learn…to take the next giant leap—sending astronauts to Mars.
“(We) will build on our successes in low-Earth orbit to create a sustainable exploration campaign that combines NASA’s expertise with that of our commercial and international partners. We will continue ushering in a new era of human spaceflight as we launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil for the first time since 2011.”
Federal Aviation Administration
The big player in the regulation of U.S. space activity seems to be the FAA, which resides under the wings of the Department of Transportation.
The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation issues commercial space transportation licenses or experimental permits when it determines that a launch or reentry proposal will not jeopardize the “public health and safety, property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States.”
There is no explicit or implicit indication that any form of public input is sought or considered in the granting of licenses or permits.
Federal Communications Commission
In many cases, the FCC also plays role. It, for example, had to grant SpaceX a license to use a series of radio frequencies for its StarLink satellites to provide internet coverage.
The FCC approved SpaceX’s request along with licenses for three other companies—Telesat, LeoSat, and Kepler Communications—that want to put 117, 78 and 140 satellites into orbit, respectively.
National Space Council
The NSC, residing within the Trump Administration, operates as an office of policy development for civil, commercial, national security and international space policy matters. Originally created in 1989 during the administration of George H.W. Bush, it was disbanded in 1993. Friction between NASA and the NSC led to its demise.
But Trump re-established it in June 2017.
The vice-president chairs the council, which is composed of cabinet-level members, the NASA administrator, and supported by a Users’ Advisory Group. Ten of 28 members of the advisory panel are major aeronautics and space exploration companies, including SpaceX.
The Rich Rocket Guys
At a NSC meeting last year, Trump said:
“…you know, I’ve always said that rich guys seem to like rockets. So, all those rich guys that are dying for our real estate to launch their rockets, we won’t charge you too much.
“…we are making our incredible facilities…available to these people that have been doing so incredibly by themselves on rocketry. So, you’re invited. The rent won’t be high….
I am instructing my administration to embrace the budding commercial space industry.”
At a recent cabinet meeting, Trump was full of praise for commercial spaceflight. He highlighted private spaceflight companies and the “rich guys” who run them.
“We’re letting them use the Kennedy Space Center for a fee and, you know rich guys, they love rocket ships,” Trump said. “That’s good. That’s better than us paying for them.”
When Trump says the government is letting commercial companies use Kennedy Space Center, he’s referring to rental agreements to use several government-owned launch facilities. SpaceX, for example, rents launch pads at Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base.
It used the Cape in February 2018 for the maiden flight of its Falcon Heavy booster, launching Musk's cherry-red Tesla Roadster and its mannequin driver, Starman, into an elliptical orbit around the sun. SpaceX didn’t disclose how much the launch cost but said at the time that future launches would cost $90 million
This June, SpaceX launched its third Falcon Heavy rocket, sending 24 different satellites into orbit. One of the satellites carried 152 metal capsules packed with human ashes. A company called Celestis arranged the "funeral flight," charging upwards of $5,000 to fly one gram of cremains into orbit. Celestis has launched cremains of engineers, astronauts, authors and even a “Star Trek” actor.
This confirms the new role for low-Earth orbit—graveyard for defunct spaceflight gear and, now, the dearly departed.
Blue Origin, the spaceflight company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, will use Cape Canaveral to launch its New Glenn rocket. Bezos is another “rich guy” rocketeer with plans like those of SpaceX. The company has teamed with Kuiper Systems and is seeking approval to launch 3,236 satellites, also to enhance global Internet coverage.
Another of the rocket “rich guys” is Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson. Unlike the others, however, Branson has more limited goals with virtually no dependence on Federal government subsidies. He built his own spaceport in the desert north of Las Cruces, NM and plans to offer 90-minute sub-orbital space flights to customers willing to pay $250,000 for about 10 minutes of weightlessness. The company claims to have 700 customers on a waiting list with the first flight scheduled for later this year.
Not to be left out of the rich guys’ rocket club, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is seeking a license for an internet satellite that would “efficiently provide broadband access to unserved and underserved areas throughout the world,” according to an application filed with the FCC under the name PointView Tech LLC. The working title for the satellite is Athena.
This, of course, raises an interesting question. Why does SpaceX need 12,000 and Amazon over 3,000 satellites to do what Zuckerberg thinks he can do with one? In any case, a cynic might suggest that his actual motivation is to add to Facebook’s 2.38 billion users in “unserved and underserved areas.”
Questions That Should Be Asked (But Aren’t?)
1. Why does the public not have meaningful input into decision-making about the commercial uses of space, which, according to international treaty, is “for all mankind?”
As has been seen, U.S. regulatory agencies involved in licensing space programs do not have formal mechanisms for public input. Agencies like the FAA and FCC look at proposals only in terms of their potential impact on “public health and safety, property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States.”
The broader social and environmental impact, the real necessity or appropriateness of these proposals apparently is not a consideration. The mandate from the current Administration is to give the commercial space flight industry what it wants, often subsidized by cut-rate use of taxpayer-funded NASA facilities.
When NASA ran the show, there was at least the potential for some public input since, as a government agency, there was political oversight. But increasingly it seems NASA will be taking a back seat to the commercial spaceflight industry whose often taxpayer-subsidized, for-profit space activities are not receiving any formal public scrutiny.
As Trump said, “The rent won’t be high….I am instructing my administration to embrace the budding commercial space industry.” Addressing his “rich guy” rocket friends, he said, “If you beat us to Mars, we’ll be very happy, and you’ll be even more famous.”
2. Why should the commercial spaceflight industry have subsidized access to taxpayer-funded NASA facilities and technology?
As indicated, the U.S. taxpayer has funded NASA to the tune of an estimated $645 billion since the agency was founded in 1958. These funds have been used to build its extensive and elaborate infrastructure, develop spaceflight technologies and fund an incredible array of space missions.
This developmental work was done by NASA scientists and engineers and implemented by a corps of astronauts, 17 of whom died in the line of duty.
Should a bunch of Johnny-come-lately rocket-loving “rich guys” be allowed to stand on NASA’s taxpayer-supported shoulders and turn space into a commercial free-for-all? This question is especially relevant when one considers the kinds of projects that are proposed or underway—orbiting celestial billboards, cluttering the night sky with thousands of satellites, depositing cremains in low-Earth orbit, offering $250,000 joy rides in the name of “space tourism.”
3. Do we really need 15,000 thousand or more satellites to provide Internet access to “unserved or underserved” areas of the globe?
The answer to this question would seem to be “no.” Simple math explains why.
Internet usage globally is currently increasing by one million users a day. Internet penetration today is close to 60 percent (4.5 billion) of the global population. Assuming a steady-state increase of one million users per day, global usage will hit 85 percent (6.2 billion) in 2025. And that’s without the help of “constellations” of thousands of satellites. Mid-decade, incidentally, is the target for SpaceX to have its huge array of satellites in place.
This is not to suggest that the additional 15 percent of world citizens don’t deserve Internet access. But, considering political, social and economic realities, will Internet coverage ever reach 100 percent? And do we need thousands of additional satellites clogging low-Earth orbit to attempt to reach that goal?
A Final Word About Progress
General Electric’s 1950’s slogan, intoned with gravitas by huckster Ronald Reagan, was “Progress is our most important product.” It became an iconic summation of human technological aspiration. But, in this case at least, progress is not as important as the thoughtful, non-exploitive, cooperative and responsible stewardship of the heavens. Otherwise we need to brace ourselves for the commercial free-for-all that is to come.
Humankind has yet to learn that where technology is concerned—as countless examples demonstrate—just because we can do something (e.g., celestial billboards), doesn’t mean we should.