Averting Environmental Risks in the New Space Age

Authors: Amy Mehlman, John P. Janka and Mark A. Sturza


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 permitting their launch or deployment, or (ii) proposing legislation that requires the FCC and the FAA to do the same.

Action -- or inaction -- by the Biden-Harris Administration will set the standard on which the global space industry will base its next design choices. Unless we act now, we may find that, as with climate change, we wish we had acted much sooner.

Download PDF

About the Authors

Amy Mehlman, Vice President of Government Affairs and Policy at Viasat, is a government relations veteran with over twenty years of experience representing companies before Congress, Federal Agencies and the Executive Branch. Amy specializes in telecommunications policy, beginning her career working with leading satellite/broadcast companies as Congress wrote the historic Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Internet bubble transformed the marketplace. Amy is also familiar with the needs and priorities of presidential transitions, having served on the FCC transition team in 2000.

John P. Janka, Chief Officer, Global Government Affairs & Regulatory at Viasat, has extensive experience in telecommunications law and policy, from over three decades of work at the global law firm Latham & Watkins, where he was a partner and served as the head of its Communications Law practice group and as the editor of a global compendium on international telecommunications, media and technology law for 10 years. John was inducted into the Legal 500 Hall of Fame in recognition of his expertise in the field. John has served as a United States Delegate to an International Telecommunication Union World Radiocommunication Conference, and he knows well the importance of American leadership in the globally shared resource of outer space.

Mark A. Sturza, President at 3C Systems Company, is an internationally recognized consultant in satellite systems.He was a member of the Teledesic founding team (Gates–McCaw “internet in the sky”), and technical lead for the Eagle River (Craig McCaw) due diligence leading to ICO’s emergence from bankruptcy. Mark has served as a technical advisor to Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Viasat. He holds a BS in Applied Mathematics from Caltech, a MSEE from USC, and an MBA from Pepperdine University. Mark is a Senior Member of the IEEE and of the AIAA. He holds a General Radiotelephone Operator License from the FCC.