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Why Starlink Isn’t Leaving Enough Space

image of space debris surrounding Earth

Last month, NASA submitted a five-page letter to the Federal Communications Commission outlining their concerns with SpaceX’s Starlink “mega-constellation” of satellites. Initially launched in May 2019, Starlink is a way of providing high-speed broadband internet across the world ‘beamed-down’ by a massive network of satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). The network was originally intended to comprise 12,000 satellites, but at the end of 2019 SpaceX sought approval for an additional 30,000 satellites.

That’s a lot of satellites. But space is massive, so why be concerned?

Well, while space might be big, LEO is not. And it’s getting awfully crowded up there. Despite the fact that it’s been only 65 years since the launch of the first artificial Earth satellite, there are now more than 25,000 objects being tracked in orbit — with about 6,100 of these below 600km. The more objects in orbit, the greater the likelihood of a devastating impact. And collisions are so much worse in space. First, there are the extreme velocities in play: in order to maintain a LEO, satellites must travel at a mind-boggling speed of around 17,000mph. Second, there is the far more complicated way in which high-speed matter interacts in space. When two cars collide on Earth, there’s a brief moment of carnage before all movement comes to a halt. This is not so in LEO. Every time two objects impact, they shatter into many smaller pieces. And these pieces keep moving — exponentially increasing the likelihood of yet another collision. This “space junk cascade” is a real concern for anyone putting objects into orbit. It even has a name: the “Kessler Syndrome.” Small pieces of orbital debris might not sound like a huge problem — but at the ridiculously high speeds mentioned above, they are. A single 3mm piece of aluminum debris traveling at normal LEO orbital speed is equivalent in energy to a bowling ball traveling at 60mph.

Introducing an additional 42,000 satellites to the already crowded high-speed orbital highway greatly increases the chances of a devastating collision occurring. Indeed, that’s probably why Starlink already accounts for more than half of the close encounters in LEO. Such a collision will, at best, come at a huge financial cost and potentially create massive disruptions to worldwide communication. At worst, it may even lead to the loss of life. Just three months prior to NASA’s letter, a Chinese space station occupied by three astronauts had to take evasive action in order to avoid such a collision.

Starlink has also raised problems on the ground. The satellites are described as a “mega constellation” for a reason — they are clearly visible from the Earth’s surface. But the high speeds of these satellites mean they don’t move in concert with other constellations, and instead streak across the sky at a much faster rate. This is devastating for anyone (professional or amateur) seeking to photograph the night sky, since Starlink satellites appear as a bright line across any long-exposure astrophotography. As a result, these satellites now ‘photobomb’ a fifth of Caltech’s telescope images — images that are intended to detect (and warn us of) near-Earth orbit asteroids.

All of these problems have come about while Starlink has only around 1900 satellites (about 1/20th of its total expected network) in orbit. Things will only get worse as the network expands.

Limiting congestion in LEO is therefore good for a number of reasons: It reduces the likelihood of collisions (and the resulting potential for destruction and death); it gives us an improved ability to photograph and document the night sky; and — at its simplest — it provides all of us with a better chance of enjoying an unfettered view of the cosmos. In this way, then, an uncongested LEO is extrinsically valuable — that is, it’s valuable because it gets us other good things.

But might we have a reason to think that an unpolluted sky is also intrinsically valuable — that is, that it’s valuable in-and-of-itself, regardless of whether or not we have anything to gain from it? Such a claim might sound strange; usually, the value of nature is seen in terms of the benefits it provides to humans. We might, for example, think that a plant is valuable because it provides us with food, or that a river is valuable because it provides us with clean drinking water, or that a mountain view is valuable because it provides us with a sense of wonder and joy. But might these things still have value even if humans weren’t around to benefit from them?

A simple thought experiment can show if such an idea has weight: Suppose that in a million years, humans no longer exist. Instead, in our place is a planet flourishing with a diverse range of animal life. Suppose, then, that one day — perhaps due to some astronomical cataclysm — the earth was to wink out of existence. Would this be a bad thing? If your answer is “yes,” then it’s likely that you think nature has value beyond what it can give humans. Put another way, you believe that the natural world has intrinsic value. Those plants, rivers, and mountain views might all provide some benefit to humans, but their value goes far beyond this. And we might argue that the same is true of space.

In this way, an unfettered view of the cosmos isn’t just good because of the benefits that it brings humans. It’s also intrinsically valuable. And polluting that vista just so that we can rewatch the Baby Shark Dance a little more easily is hard to justify.

The Artemis Accords: A New Race to Dominate Space

image of American flag superimposed over the moon

We are on the verge of a new space age – the age of New Space. Unlike the space race of the Cold War era – starting with the 1957 launch, by the U.S.S.R, of Sputnik, the first human-made object in space, and culminating in the U.S. Apollo moon mission and the 1969 moon landing – in which the competitors were national space agencies, this new space age is being driven in a large part by billionaires, private space corporations and commercial business ventures. It will be characterized by the onset of space tourism, mining of the moon, asteroids and other planets and, in all likelihood, habitation of space and colonization of other planets and celestial bodies.

Alongside the well-rehearsed justifications for space exploration – of scientific discovery, furthering or fulfilling the destiny of humankind, perhaps extending the reach and viability of the human species in off-world or inter-planetary habitats – this new era will be sustained and driven by motivations of profit and resource extraction.

All these fast approaching space activities throw-up significant ethical challenges. How would space habitats be governed? Who should get to own and profit from space resources? What are the implications of the increasing use of satellite technology, and how can we prevent the militarization of space? What environmental issues do we need to be aware of – such as forwards and backwards contamination (causing changes to space environments by introducing terrestrial matter or to Earth environments from extra-terrestrial matter)? How do we understand concepts of ownership, sovereignty and heritage in relation to space?

The ethical implications of all kinds of activities in space are not just important for astronauts, space tourists, or future inhabitants of new colonies, but are important for the vast majority of humans who will never go into space; that is to say, for ‘all humankind’.

Legal scholars and space law experts recognize the current regime of international space law needs updating. The privatization and commercialization of space is one of the most significant issues the international community will face in coming years, and there is urgent need for regulation and policy to catch up.

The U.S. government is moving to shape the (United Nations sponsored) international space regime in a mold that is favorable to commercial activity – through domestic law as well as by spearheading a series of international agreements known as the Artemis Accords.

Artemis is the sister of Apollo – and the mission of NASA’s newest lunar program is sending humans back to the moon for exploration, and then (as it becomes possible) sending astronauts to Mars. It seems clear that the program increases the likelihood of resource extraction and eventual habitation.

The Artemis Accords are a series of bilateral agreements the U.S. signed in 2020 with a select few nations it wishes to partner with in space (including the U.K., U.A.E., Japan, Italy, Canada and Australia), and are designed to advance NASA’s Artemis Program. Though they are under the aegis of NASA, these accords clearly have implications for commercial space ventures. The accords enshrine the core principle that “space resource extraction and utilization can and will be conducted under the auspices of the Outer Space Treaty.”

Essentially, the Accords are an attempt to secure an interpretation of the 1969 Outer Space Treaty (OST) that will allow activities of “space resource extraction” which are not universally acknowledged or agreed to. To understand why some are concerned, how the Artemis Accords stand in relation to other important space treaties – in particular, the OST and the Moon Agreement – must be appreciated.

First of the five core space treaties, the OST was signed in 1969 by the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. at the height of Cold War tensions, amid fervid space technology competition, and was drawn up under the auspices of the UN as a way of preventing the militarization of space. (In this it has not entirely succeeded.) The OST is the foundation of the international space regime which sets out the most fundamental principles of space exploration and use, and its basic tenets are reflected in policies adopted by the international community to govern human activities in space.

Article One states:

“The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.” (My italics.)

Article Two states:

“Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” (My italics.)

So the basis for all international space law, from its inception, was an agreement which essentially ruled out ownership of space environments by nations or individuals, including the moon, planets, or other celestial bodies.

The Moon Agreement – fifth of the five core space treaties, opened for signatures in 1979 – was drawn up largely by non-spacefaring states. It was an attempt to strengthen the terms of these principles of the OST, and to protect against the possibility that dominant space actors could claim (and benefit exclusively from) space resources, without any accountability to, or input from, smaller and less capable states.

Neither the U.S., nor any other major space-faring nation, has signed the Moon Agreement, giving it very little power to influence New Space activity. The reason: the Moon Agreement goes a step further by designating space as “the common heritage” as well as “the province of all mankind.” This principle holds in place two important provisions of the Moon Agreement which made it unpalatable to powerful spacefaring nations.

Article Four states:

“The exploration and use of the moon shall be the province of all mankind and shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development.” (My italics.)

And Article Eleven, which states that the moon’s resources cannot be the property of any state or non-state entity or person, goes on to stipulate that parties to the agreement “establish an international regime… to govern the exploitation of the natural resources of the moon…”

Essentially the Moon Agreement is a treaty in which less powerful countries sought to secure space resources as a kind of global commons that would benefit everyone. However, the implication that this joint claim might entail an equitable sharing of space resources and benefits more broadly, was enough to deter major space players from endorsing the spirit and the letter of the agreement.

Instead, via the Artemis Accords, the U.S. is now seeking bilateral consensus to advance an interpretation of “the province of all mankind” that rejects that which the Moon Agreement tried to secure. Specifically, the accords push an interpretation in which resource extraction does not violate the prohibition on national sovereignty or individual ownership in space. (Section 10 of the Artemis Accords says: “…the extraction of space resources does not inherently constitute national appropriation under Article II of the Outer Space Treaty…”)

In contrast to the global commons approach, the U.S., and other spacefaring states, are taking a dominance approach. There has been some backgrounding on this in U.S. domestic law. In 2015 Congress passed the Space Launch Competitiveness Act – stating that any U.S. citizen or corporation shall be entitled to “possess, own, transport, use and sell any space resource obtained in accordance with applicable laws.”

And a U.S. Presidential executive order signed by Donald Trump in 2020 more or less kills off the spirit of the Moon Agreement. The Executive Order on Encouraging International Support for the Recovery and Use of Space Resources, 2020 makes clear that the U.S., including private or corporate interests operating under its flag, does not consider outer space to be a ‘global commons’.

All this clearly reflects the huge political and monetary inequalities existent in the world. In international law, as in other areas of law, gestures to universality, objectivity, and neutrality are spurious, because, despite pretensions to be otherwise, the law reflects the power imbalances within a society, and international law reflects them across the globe.

Space law is a relatively new field, and at present it functions as a species of international law, through treaties and international agreements. Space Law specialist Cassandra Steer writes: “Treaties, though negotiated in a multilateral setting, are always a result of political give and take, and the states who can leverage their power the most take more than they give.” As Steer argues, “There is no equality between countries, despite the notion of formal equality as a value underpinning international law.” Similarly, there is no equal access to space, nor equal distribution of the benefits derived from space. Despite the promise of the OST, space is far from being “the province of all mankind.”

As we enter the New Space era an updated international legal regime is needed; a regime which is robust enough to bring domestic law into harmony with international obligations and treaties, and one which is geared towards managing the new, commercial uses of space as a frontier for private enterprise. This needs to happen before the horse bolts.

The size of this task can’t be underestimated. It requires a collaborative effort to revisit and carefully reflect upon fundamental ethical concepts of value and equity and justice.

This includes thinking about how to share resources by revisiting questions of claim, ownership, and sovereignty in space. It means thinking about what intrinsic value space environments might have, and what ways we think it is important to protect them. It involves considering questions of heritage and it involves thinking about rights in terms of resources that are finite, such as the use of near-Earth orbit which is already experiencing extremely high volumes of satellite traffic.

Given that the terrestrial environment is facing catastrophe from climate change and ecological destruction, which is itself an outcome of resource depletion from rapacious capitalist activity, I think we, as a global community, should work to prevent such impulses from dominating our ventures beyond this world as well.

And like many things that feel urgent in this time of rapid change, we must do it soon or it will be too late.

InSight’s Landing on Mars: Ethics of Space Exploration

Artist's rendering of InSight and the two MarsCubes as they approach Mars from Earth

On Monday, November 26th, at approximately 2:54 pm ET, NASA’s InSight probe landed on its three legs on the surface of Mars. InSight hurtled at 13,200 mph towards the open plains of Mars, the Elysium Planitia, to a safe landing.  The total descent took six and a half minutes, otherwise known to NASA as the “seven minutes of terror” because only 40% of missions on Mars are successful.  InSight’s landing is adding to the US’s success rate of seven Mars landings in the past four decades with only one failed touchdown. These missions can be risky and very expensive but can make very important scientific achievements.

Space exploration, such as InSight, has provided many benefits to our society. Inspired by human curiosity, the exploration is deep into the unknown. According to NASA, exploration pushes the boundaries of current scientific and technical limits, inspiring scientists to address challenges that are unique and rewarding. From the Apollo, they created the guidance computer, the predecessor to the microcomputer, now in all smart phones. Other advances have created fire resistant clothes and in-depth research with how diseases behave in microgravity. The immune system in particular has been studied in depth because microbes react differently in space. New industries have emerged and connections have been fostered between differing countries. These missions aren’t possible without lots of time and funding spent.

InSight traveled for seven months in space before the probe landed on Mars. InSight’s principal investigator, Bruce Banerdt, said, “It’s taken more than a decade to bring InSight from a concept to a spacecraft approaching Mars — and even longer since I was first inspired to try to undertake this kind of mission. But even after landing, we’ll need to be patient for the science to begin.” InSight’s purpose is to study the characteristics of the mantle, core, and crust of Mars to deepen scientist’s understanding about the great red planet. It aims to study the heat fluctuations and tremors on the planet’s surface. It is tracking the wobbles of the planet on the axis which will tell us if the planet is molten or solid at the core. Scientists hope to learn more about how Mars was formed, how this differs from Earth, and more in depth about the “liveable” conditions. “We’ve studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology and surface chemistry,” said Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA. “Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper into the solar system.”

InSight alone was a $814 million-dollar mission that took over a decade of planning. The amount of time and valuable resources spent towards this mission and other space explorations is astounding. It’s possible that those resources could be utilized on Earth. An important consideration to make is if the benefit from the space missions outweighs the cost of the expense. Beyond monetary expenses, space missions can be dangerous for the well-being of space travelers and the ecosystems of the planets being studied.

The human body and space do not go well together. When humans travel to space they are exposed to harmful radiation which can lead to increased risk of cancer, damage to the central nervous system, and radiation sickness. With a lack of gravity, the muscles and bones deteriorate. Food is primarily freeze dried and lacks in nutrients, increasing the likelihood of malnutrition. Astronauts are isolated in a confined space for extended periods of time which requires months of training and preparation. This travel is not ideal for the people taking the journey.

Not all space travel requires a human on board, as seen with the InSight probe.  However, similar to the concerns with the SpaceX mission launched this year in February, there is the risk of contamination to the planet of study. The probes bring microorganisms from earth which could contaminate the natural ecosystem of the planet. Spacecraft parts also frequently fall off. With global dust storms on the planet, it could carry these contaminants across the planet surface having a vast effect.

Having anthropocentrism, human-centric values one would argue that these possible adverse contaminations to explored planets aren’t concerning because these planets are of instrumental use to humans. However, a ecocentric holism viewpoint says that non-individuals, such as natural processes, species, and ecosystem interactions on earth have intrinsic value and deserve respect. So, where does the human ecosystem begin or end? It becomes a question of if extraterrestrial areas should be protected considering they are not technically a part of the earth’s ecosystem.  John D Rummel of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, proposes a precautionary principle that says, “If an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking the action.” With this viewpoint, he says that because of the suspected risk to other planets, space groups like NASA must prove that the harm is not too great. We’ve covered environmental ethics of Mars and the morality of possible other life more in-depth here and here.

Space exploration leads to new ethical dilemmas with new discoveries. As the technologies begin to increase and our knowledge of other systems grows, we have to reconsider the ethics behind exploration. The basis of this is beyond our intentions for good and is the problem of not knowing our the actions taken towards space discovery might affect life and systems so different from Earth’s.


Jupiter’s New Companion

Late on July 4th, NASA tweeted that their space probe, Juno, successfully entered Jupiter’s orbit after five years and 1.7 billion miles of travel. Juno is the first spacecraft to reach Jupiter since Galileo in 1995. The probe broke multiple records during its journey, including fastest man-made object at 165,000 miles per hour, and farthest solar-powered spacecraft from Earth. Juno more than broke the 492-million-mile record held by the Rosetta mission.

Continue reading “Jupiter’s New Companion”