With the help of Derek Robertson
Broadband internet satellites ready to cover the sky over the next decade on a scale never seen before. Just don’t ask politicians today how exactly we are going to deal with the consequences.
This story is familiar to longtime tech watchers. A leap forward can sometimes lead to unforeseen consequences, often very noticeable, and sometimes to new dangers. Companies have connected homes to electricity, telephone lines, television signals, and the Internet—the marvels of modern communications—but communities have inherited an urban landscape laden with dangling wires and attendant fire hazards.
Now that connectivity journey reaches miles above the Earth, and the side effects are as big as broadband vision itself.
Tech billionaires Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are planning a major investment in an ambitious satellite broadband network that will orbit the globe in low Earth orbit, relaying internet signals to those of us on the ground. This can be especially valuable in remote rural areas of the planet (or in war-ravaged Ukraine, as DFD recently outlined). But many of the rules for how these systems will work remain to be written, posing practical and geopolitical challenges for emerging market players such as SpaceX, Amazon and One Web (troubled rival, now owned by the British government).
This includes how these satellites can navigate a shattered globe without creating a cascade of orbital debris while still spoiling the night sky for stargazers. The addition of thousands of satellites in orbit can make the sky both crowded with visual obstructions and brighter with streaks of reflected light that can distort astronomy and even bird migration routes.
Astronomers have been warning about this for the past three years – at the United Nations, at satellite companies and at international conferences.
“If we destroy astronomy using the tools of satellite megaconstellations, then we will pay big money for it – it will be a huge loss for science,” astronomer James Lowenthal told me. Betting a lot more satellites in low earth orbit risks creating a cascade of debris if they collide with each other, but even in the absence of such chain reaction the much larger number of satellites planned for the coming decade still threaten astronomy.
At stake could be research operations by NASA’s 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope and, as Lowenthal said, “our ability to look up as well as look down,” satellites studying climate change, drought, floods, and agricultural food production. . “They are all at risk from possible debris cascades,” he warned.
U.S. regulators have begun updating policies to reduce space debris, but these are small steps and geopolitics hinder broader efforts to protect the night sky. Any budding satellite player has to negotiate market access with a range of governments, many of which no longer get along.
“Russia and China are pretty much excluded for any Western IEO. [low-earth orbit satellite] system” that strains capital-intensive networks that are “spanning the entire planet,” Armand Musey, president of consulting firm Summit Ridge Group, told me.
SpaceX has taken some steps on its own to address these issues. it reduced the brightness of some Starlink satellites applying anti-reflective coatings and visors, and changing their orbit, but these “DarkSat” and “VisorSat” models did not eliminate the fears of astronomers. And these changes come years after U.S. regulators originally approved the launches—the government review didn’t take environmental factors like light pollution into account because 2020 academic journal article mourned.
Musey suggested that nations might want to develop a pact similar to the Antarctic Treaty, formed in the mid-20th century, which lays out rules for demilitarization and scientific research in this largely remote region to combat the growing risk of orbital debris. (1967 Outer Space Treaty contains provisions making states liable for damage caused by “space objects” and directing states to “avoid harmful pollution of space”, but lacks enforcement mechanisms.)
“You are entering a phase where people are launching thousands of satellites,” Musey said, and yet “we don’t really see the political will” to address the mitigation issue.
Lowenthal is pushing for language to be included in FCC-focused legislation that would require satellite vendors to consult with NASA and the National Science Foundation and “demonstrate that they have reached agreement on their plan to minimize negative impacts on astronomy.”
One pessimistic view, Lowenthal warned, is that little will happen until the debris gets so bad it’s physically dangerous, whether it’s objects colliding with an astronaut in space or falling to the ground. He quoted a fireball is visible in the sky over the Pacific Northwest last year from a SpaceX rocket that burned up in the atmosphere.
“It’s just a matter of time before one of them falls on someone’s head,” Lowenthal said. “Perhaps this is what it takes to wake people up and start the regulatory mechanism – I don’t know.”
Emily Birnbaum of POLITICO took a close look at the Rep. Susan DelBene (Washington State) beloved trendsetter in the tech industry and co-founder of the AR and VR focused Reality Conference.
The report comes as antitrust bill aimed at big tech companies is moving through Congress, and Delbene could potentially be a spoiler: Emily reports that the representative, “who has a lot of Amazon employees in her district, was one of two members of the New Democrats who raised concerns about the bills focusing on a few selected companies. ”
Read Emily full report here.
Another skirmish in the escalating war between the SEC and cryptocurrency:
In today’s morning money Sam Sutton of POLITICO reports on a showdown between the Securities and Exchange Commission and Grayscale Investments, one of the many crypto firms trying to stay afloat in the current bear market.
The conflict stems from Grayscale’s bid to turn its nearly $13 billion bitcoin trust, the world’s largest, into an ETF, or exchange-traded fund. This will free him from the various trading restrictions that his shares are currently subject to. over-the-counter productsand help bring share prices in line with the value of Grayscale’s bitcoin assets, the company claims.
The Securities and Exchange Commission, citing the unpredictability and susceptibility to fraud of cryptoassets, disagreed – as with many other bitcoin ETF applications. For now and for the foreseeable future, overleveraged crypto platforms are much more likely to find relief from industry bigwigs. as Sam Bankman-Fried than any federal agency. – Derek Robertson
Stay in touch with the entire team: Ben Schrekinger ([email protected]); Derek Robertson[email protected]); Konstantin Kakaes (ur.[email protected]); and Heidi Vogt ([email protected]). Follow us on Twitter @DigitalFuture.