We face an existential crisis: Space is at risk of developing the equivalent of the ocean’s “drifting island of plastic.” Air, space, and light pollution now present looming environmental threats created by the launch of new “mega-constellations” of thousands of satellites in the part of space near Earth called “Low Earth Orbit” (LEO). A “take risks and fail often” approach to new technology has been extended to space without consideration of the fact that mistakes in space cannot be cleaned up like they can on Earth.
In 2019, a European Earth observation satellite came dangerously close to colliding with a newly launched mega-constellation satellite, having to perform a last-minute maneuver to avoid the satellite, whose operator did not respond to attempts to contact it. As the number of satellites in congested orbits increases exponentially, close calls like this are becoming more commonplace. And we are seeing an unexpected number of these satellites fail such that they do not even have the ability to try to avoid dangerous collisions. As the movie Gravity illustrated, a collision in space can set off a chain reaction of further collisions, potentially destroying or disabling satellites and spreading large amounts of dangerous space junk. The recent introduction of thousands of satellites in LEO is also creating light and radio-frequency pollution that impairs the once-clear access to the cosmos for critical scientific-based research. Indifferent to these serious environmental issues, and largely unregulated, mega-constellation operators are rushing to launch as many satellites as possible before new rules are put in place.
The Biden-Harris Administration should direct the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fully examine and address these critical environmental issues before the United States authorizes thousands more LEO satellites in mega-constellations. Three concrete steps are warranted: (i) determine the aggregate impact of all mega-constellations, (ii) conduct a thorough review of these “unprecedented” new uses of space under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and (iii) adopt new rules that consider the full environmental impacts of mega-constellations before they are launched. In this regard, the Biden-Harris Administration should consider either (i) issuing an Executive Order instructing the FCC and the FAA to evaluate the environmental consequences associated with mega-constellations before