industrials

We must regulate the exploitation of limited resources in space

The writer is founder, chair and chief executive of Viasat

The possibilities space offers are almost endless. The navigation systems in our cars and phones; the weather observation satellites analysing this summer’s heatwave in Europe; the pictures of troop movements from the war in Ukraine; the safety communications on planes and ships; broadband services in hard-to-reach locations — the space economy informs and benefits everyone.

Space is a shared resource which must remain available to all nations. No private company, no matter how well-funded or fleet of foot, should be allowed to dominate it for its own benefit, or take risks that contribute to the existing climate crisis.

Yet that is the threat I believe we now face. Mega-constellations incorporating thousands, and soon tens of thousands, of satellites are crowding into low-Earth orbit, or LEO, and claiming the right to occupy it in a manner that poses a great threat to safety, competition, innovation and consumer choice.

As the founder, chair and CEO of Viasat, one of the world’s largest satellite companies, I am confident that we have the scale and the technology to compete. Many others, including numerous countries, do not.

Concern about the over-exploitation of limited space resources is growing rapidly among global space agencies, policy and research institutions and national governments.

The proliferation of mega-constellations in LEO risks a cascade of collisions, potentially denying access to space for decades or even centuries. In June, the UK’s former science minister George Freeman warned how “a ‘Wild West’ space race without effective regulation risks a growing crisis of debris in space”.

Greatly increasing the number of rocket launches will also cause environmental harm, as will the small particles and chemical compounds released into the ozone layer when, every day, dozens of spacecraft disintegrate at the end of their short lives. Plus, the light pollution caused by countless satellites may soon outnumber visible stars, interfering with optical and radio astronomy.

Though these harms have not yet been thoroughly examined, the size and total mass of the LEO mega-constellations has been increasing at an alarming rate. Just as we measure carbon footprints, we urgently need to determine the environmental footprint of each LEO constellation.

Fortunately, there is a growing international recognition that LEO is a shared natural resource and that the number of satellites that can operate there is limited. This concept of “carrying capacity” can help us assess how to best use the resource to benefit all.

Countries with space aspirations will not be able to realise them if they are denied orbital resources to support their spacecraft. This is even true of advanced nations unable or unwilling to outspend the mega-constellations in the race to capture orbital real estate.

We must find a way to share these limited natural resources equitably and with regard for the consequences of their use. International treaties have long recognised that nations must have equitable access to the orbits and frequencies around Earth. We need to protect that right before it’s too late.

Ultimately, the power to rein in anti-competitive behaviour is distributed among all countries — it does not reside in a single licensing authority. The worst consequences could be avoided if an influential group of nations were able to place reasonable multilateral constraints on the orbital and environmental footprints of the constellations they allow to serve their countries.

Some mega-constellations insist that only they can close the digital divide, and only if they decide the rules. But the “move fast and break things” approach to new markets has not worked well on Earth over the past couple of decades — it’s hard to see why it should be allowed in space.

hello, I am Flora Khan and i work journalist in allnewshouse website i work in other sites like forbes and washington post with 5 years in experience.

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