Starlink and astronomy

SpaceX’s Starlink constellation is currently a network of 120+ satellites and which, in the next decade, will expand to 10,000+ to provide low-cost internet from space around the world. Astronomers everywhere have been pissed off with these instruments because they physically interfere with observations of the night sky, especially those undertaken by survey telescopes with wide fields of view, and some of whose signals could interfere electromagnetically with radio-astronomy.

In his resourceful new book The Consequential Frontier (2019), on “challenging the privatisation of space”, Peter Ward quotes James Vedda, senior policy analyst for the Centre for Space Policy and Strategy at the Aerospace Corporation, on the expansion of the American railroad in the 19th century:

Everybody likes to point to the railroad and say that, ‘Oh, back in the nineteenth century, when all this was all being built up, it was all built by the private sector.’ Well, hold on a minute. They didn’t do it alone because they were given huge amounts of land to lay their tracks and to build their stations. And not just a little strip of land wide enough for the tracks, they were usually given up to a mile on either side. … I read one estimate that in the nineteenth-century development of the railroads, the railroad companies were given land grants that if you total them all up together were equivalent to the size of Texas. They sold off all that extra land [and] they found that they got to keep the money. Besides that, the US Geological Survey went out and did this surveying for them and gave them the results for free so that is a significant cost that they didn’t have.

Ward extends Vedda’s comments to the activities of SpaceX and Blue Origin, the private American space companies stewarded by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, respectively. We’re not in the golden age of private spaceflight thanks to private enterprise. Instead, just like the Information Age owes itself to defence contracts awarded to universities and research labs during World War II and the Cold War, private operators owe themselves to profitable public-private partnerships funded substantially by federal grants and subsidies in the 1980s and 1990s. It would be doubly useful to bear this in mind when thinking about Starlink as well.

When Musk was confronted a month or so ago with astronomers’ complaints, he replied (via Twitter) that astronomers will have to launch more space telescopes “anyway”. This is not true, but even if it were, it recalls the relationship between private and public enterprise from over a century ago. As the user @cynosurae pointed out on Twitter, space telescopes are expensive (relative to ground-based instruments with similar capabilities and specifications) and they can only be built with government support in terms of land, resources and funds. That is, the consequences of Musk’s ambition – economists call them negative externalities – vis-à-vis the astronomy community can only be offset by taxpayer money.

Many Twitter users have been urging Musk to placate Starlink’s detractors by launching a telescope for them but science isn’t profitable except in the long-term. More importantly, the world’s astronomers are not likely to persuade the American government (whose FAA issues payload licenses and FCC regulates spectrum use) to force SpaceX to work with them, such as through the International Astronomical Union, which has offered its assistance, and keep Starlink from disrupting studies of the night sky.

It’s pertinent to remind ourselves at this juncture that while the consequences for astronomy have awakened us to SpaceX’s transgression, the root cause is not the availability of the night sky for unimpeded astronomical observations. That’s only the symptom; the deeper malaise is unilateral action to impact a resource that belongs to everyone.

Musk or anyone else can’t deny that their private endeavours often incur, and impose, costs that the gloss of private enterprise tends to pass over.

It wouldn’t matter if SpaceX is taken to court for its rivalrous use of the commons. Without the FAA, FCC or any other, even an international, body regulating satellite launches, orbital placement, mission profile, spectrum use, mission lifetime and – now – appearance, orbital space is going to get really crowded really fast. According to one projection, “between 2019 and 2028, more than 8,500 satellites will be launched, half of which will be to support broadband constellations, for a total market value of $42 billion”. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket can already launch 60 Starlink satellites in one go; India and China have also developed new rockets to more affordably launch more small-sats more often.

A comparable regulatory leverage currently exists only with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which oversees spectrum use. It has awarded 1,800 orbital slots in the geosynchronous orbit to national telecom operators, such as FCC in the US and DoT in India. Regional operators register these slots and station telecommunication satellites there, each working with a predetermined set of frequencies.

Non-communication satellites as well as satellites in other orbits aren’t so formally organised. Satellite operators do work with the space and/or defence agencies of other countries to ensure their instruments don’t conflict with others in any way, in the interest of both self-preservation and debris mitigation. But beyond the ITU, no international body regulates satellite launches into any other orbits, and even the ITU doesn’t regulate any mission parameters beyond data transmission.

Starlink satellites will occupy the low-Earth (550 km and 1,150 km) and very-low-Earth orbits (340 km).

So an abundance of financial incentives, a dearth of policies and the complete absence of regulatory bodies allow private players a free run in space. Taking SpaceX to court at this juncture would miss the point (even if it were possible): the commons may have indirect financial value but their principal usefulness is centred on their community value, and which the US has undermined with its unilateral action. Musk has said his company will work with astronomers and observatories to minimise Starlink’s impact on their work but astronomers are understandably miffed that this offer wasn’t extended before launch and because absolute mitigation is highly unlikely with 12,000 (if not 42,000) satellites in orbit.

Taking a broader view, Starlink is currently the most visible constellation – literally and figuratively – but it’s not alone: space is only becoming more profitable, and other planned or functional constellations include Athena, Iridium and OneWeb. It would be in everyone’s best interests in this moment to get in front of this expansion and find a way to ensure all countries have equal access and opportunities to extract value from orbital space as well as equal stake in maintaining it as a shared resource.

In fact, like the debate between SpaceX and its supporters on the one hand and astronomers on the other has spotlighted what’s really at stake, it should also alert us that others should get to participate as well.

The bigger issue doesn’t concern astronomical observations – less interference with astronomical activity won’t make SpaceX’s actions less severe – nor low-cost internet (although one initial estimate suggests a neat $80, or Rs 5,750, per month) but of a distinctly American entity colonising a commons and preventing others from enjoying it. Governments – as in the institutions that make railroads, universities and subsidies possible – and not astronomers alone should decide, in consultation with their people as well as each other, what the next steps should be.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Wire on November 20, 2019.

Is it so blasphemous to think ISRO ought not to be compared to other space agencies?

Is it so hard to consider the possibility that we might get a better sense of ISRO’s activities if we did not keep comparing it to those of other space agencies?

ISRO is one of those few public sector organisations in India that actually do well and are (relatively) free of bureaucratic interference. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before we latched on to its success and even started projecting our yearning to be the “world’s best” upon it – whether or not it chose to be in a particular enterprise. I’m not sure if asserting the latter or not affects ISRO (of course not, who am I kidding) but its exposition is a way to understand what ISRO might be thinking, and what might be the best way to interpret and judge its efforts.

So last evening, I wrote and published an article on The Wire titled ‘Apples and Oranges: Why ISRO Rockets Aren’t Comparable to Falcons or Arianes‘. Gist: PSLV/GSLV can’t be compared to the rockets they’re usually compared to (Proton, Falcon 9, Ariane 5) because:

  1. PSLV is low-lift, the three foreign rockets are medium- to -heavy-lift; in fact, each of them can lift at least 1,000 kg more to the GTO than the GSLV Mk-III will be able to
  2. PSLV is cheaper to launch (and probably the Mk-III too) but this is only in terms of the rocket’s cost. The price of launching a kilogram on the rocket is thought to be higher
  3. PSLV and GSLV were both conceived in the 1970s and 1980s to meet India’s demands; they were never built to compete internationally like the Falcon 9 or the Ariane 5
  4. ISRO’s biggest source of income is the Indian government; Arianespace and SpaceX depend on the market and launch contracts from the EU and the US

While spelling out any of these points, never was I thinking that ISRO was inferior to the rest. My goal was to describe a different kind of pride, one that didn’t rest on comparisons but drew its significance from the idea that it was self-fulfilling. This is something I’ve tried to do before as well, for example with one of the ASTROSAT instruments as well as with ASTROSAT itself.

In fact, when discussing #3, it became quite apparent to me (thanks to the books I was quoting from) that comparing PSLV/GSLV with foreign rockets was almost fallacious. The PSLV was born out of a proposal Vikram Sarabhai drew up, before he died in 1970, to launch satellites into polar Sun-synchronous orbits – a need that became acute when ISRO began to develop its first remote-sensing satellites. The GSLV was born when ISRO realised the importance of its multipurpose INSAT satellites and the need to have a homegrown launcher for them.

Twitter, however, disagreed – often vehemently. While there’s no point discussing what the trolls had to say, all of the feedback I received there, as well as on comments on The Wire, seemed intent ISRO would have to be competing with foreign players and that simply was the best. (We moderate comments on The Wire, but in this case, I’m inclined to disapprove even the politely phrased ones because they’re just missing the point.) And this is exactly what I was trying to dispel through my article, so either I haven’t done my job well or there’s no swaying some people as to what ISRO ought to be doing.

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We’re not the BPO of the space industry nor is there a higher or lower from where we’re standing. And we don’t get the job done at a lower cost than F9 or A5 because, hey, completely different launch scenarios.

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Again, the same mistake. Don’t compare! At this point, I began to wonder if people were simply taking one look at the headline and going “Yay/Ugh, another comparison”. And I’m also pretty sure that this isn’t a social/political-spectrum thing. Quite a few comments I received were from people I know are liberal, progressive, leftist, etc., and they all said what this person ↑ had to say.

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Compete? Grab market? What else? Colonise Mars? Send probes to Jupiter? Provide internet to Africa? Save the world?

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Now you’re comparing the engines of two different kinds of rockets. Dear tweeter: the PSLV uses alternating solid and liquid fuel motors; the Falcon 9 uses a semi-cryogenic engine (like the SCE-200 ISRO is trying to develop). Do you remember how many failures we’ve had of the cryogenic engine? It’s a complex device to build and operate, so you need to make concessions for it in its first few years of use.

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“If [make comparison] why you want comparison?” After I’ve made point by [said comparison]: “Let ISRO do its thing.” Well done.

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This tweet was from a friend – who I knew for a fact was also trying to establish that Indian and foreign launchers are incomparable in that they are not meant to be compared. But I think it’s also an example of how the narrative has become skewed, often expressed only in terms of a hierarchy of engineering capabilities and market share, and not in terms of self-fulfilment. And in many other situations, this might have been a simple fact to state. In the one we’re discussing, however, words have become awfully polarised, twisted. Now, it seems, “different” means “crap”, “good” means nothing and “record” means “good”.

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Comments like this, representative of a whole bunch of them I received all of last evening, seem tinged with an inferiority complex, that we once launched sounding rockets carried on bicycles and now we’re doing things you – YOU – ought to be jealous of. And if you aren’t, and if you disagree that C37 was a huge deal, off you go with the rocket the next time!

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The Times of India even had a cartoon to celebrate the C37 launch: it mocked the New York Times‘s attempt to mock ISRO when the Mars Orbiter Mission injected itself into an orbit around the red planet on September 27, 2014. The NYT cartoon had, in the first place, been a cheap shot; now, TOI is just saying cheap shots are a legitimate way of expressing something. It never was. Moreover, the cartoons also made a mess of what it means to be elite – and disrupted conversations about whether there ought to be such a designation at all.

As for comments on The Wire:

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Obviously this is going to get the cut.

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As it happens, this one is going to get the cut, too.

I do think the media shares a large chunk of the blame when it comes to how ISRO is perceived. News portals, newspapers, TV channels, etc., have all fed the ISRO hype over the years: here, after all, was a PSU that was performing well, so let’s give it a leg up. In the process, the room for criticising ISRO shrank and has almost completely disappeared today. The organisation has morphed into a beacon of excellence that can do no wrong, attracting jingo-moths to fawn upon its light.

We spared it the criticisms (offered with civility, that is) that would have shaped the people’s perception of the many aspects of a space programme: political, social, cultural, etc. At the same time, it is also an organisation that hasn’t bothered with public outreach much and this works backwards. Media commentaries seem to bounce off its stony edifice with no effect. In all, it’s an interesting space in which to be engaged, as a researcher or even as an enthusiast, but I will say I did like it better when the trolls were not interested in what ISRO was up to.

Featured image credit: dlr_de/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.