The growing number of manmade objects in orbit around the Earth is raising alarms among business leaders and environmentalists.
That group includes Mark Dankberg, CEO and co-founder of Viasat, the Carlsbad satellite services operator.
“As more operators plan to launch hundreds of thousands of satellites into space—especially into the orbit closest to our planet (low-Earth orbit)—the need for new regulation and careful resource management is paramount,” Dankberg said in a statement posted on the company website.
“Without suitable new rules that we apply to the potential damage created by these mega-constellations, we’re at risk of creating problems that could take decades—or even centuries—to fix,” the CEO wrote.
A growing number of satellites as well as the growing amount of space debris is liable to create multiple problems, Viasat (NASDAQ: VSAT) says in a November report, “Managing Mega-Constellation Risks in LEO.” The abbreviation is short for low-Earth orbit.
The company has said that federal officials need to tighten regulations as the business community launches a new generation of satellites. Regulatory bodies include the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Aviation Administration.
Viasat operates communications satellites and is preparing to launch a constellation of three high-capacity models, including one this spring. This comes as operators from several nations join what has been called a new space race. U.S. efforts include Starlink, part of privately held SpaceX, as well as Project Kuiper from Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN).
To be sure, Viasat and its peers are all going after market share in the satellite communications business. Viasat’s concerns have been dismissed by other companies as anticompetitive, according to one Viasat representative.
But Dankberg and his executive team are not alone in their concerns.
‘An Additional Ecosystem’
In April 2022, a group of 11 scientists published “The Case for Space Environmentalism” in the journal Nature Astronomy. In their paper, they laid out “the case for considering the orbital space around the Earth as an additional ecosystem, subject to the same care and concerns, and the same broad regulations as the oceans and the atmosphere, for example.” Andy Lawrence of the University of Edinburgh was lead author of the paper.
The authors noted that a growing number of satellites are likely to affect the work of astronomers, and more orbital debris increases the chance of collisions in space. The paper also says there are other impacts, including biological impacts if satellites disorient animals that steer by the stars while migrating.
“A greatly increased number of satellites could significantly alter our whole perception of the night sky in the long term, appearing as ‘fake stars’; under our model 2030-era population, the number of visible fake stars could well rival the number of visible real stars,” Lawrence and his co-authors wrote.
“They will be toward the fainter end of what one can see with the unaided eye, affecting the remaining uncontaminated places to observe the sky in particular, for the whole night (depending on seasons and latitudes),” the authors said. Though they may be dim, the number of satellites may “create an unsettling effect of constant wriggling and squirming.”
One part of the paper suggests defining what it called “a Space Traffic footprint, as a Carbon Footprint analogue.”
More Satellites to Come
John Janka, chief officer of global government affairs and regulatory at Viasat, said the cost of putting satellites into space has dropped dramatically. With it, the number of satellites being launched is growing rapidly. Companies are planning to launch tens of thousands of satellites in the next decade.
“We’ve never seen [satellite] constellations of this scale,” he said.
Viasat has raised concerns about light pollution, the equitable use of radio spectrum, and the potential of satellites falling out of orbit, burning in the atmosphere and releasing harmful chemicals.
Another concern is space debris, which travels at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour and is capable of damaging or destroying whatever is in its path.
Janka said Viasat has great hopes for low-Earth orbit. “We think we have only started to scratch the surface of what’s possible,” he said.
The fear, he said, is that low-Earth orbit will get overcrowded, and that humanity will hit the limits of what can be accomplished.
If that occurs, it’s bad for the environment and industry, he said.
The satellites Viasat is building now will be in an orbit higher than LEO, called geosynchronous. They will travel at the same speed of the Earth rotating below them. Therefore, from an observer’s point of view, a satellite will appear to stay in the same place in the sky.
CEO: Mark Dankberg
BUSINESS: Broadband services and technologies company
REVENUE: $2.79 billion
STOCK: VSAT on NASDAQ
EMPLOYEES: Approximately 7,000 worldwide
SOCIAL IMPACT: Viasat says it is working toward global digital inclusion by, first, building a financially sustainable business that serves populations who have yet to be connected to the internet, and second, offering that service at approachable price points
NOTABLE: Viasat traces its roots to Linkabit, a tech company with ties to UC San Diego; Viasat co-founder and CEO Mark Dankberg previously worked at Linkabit