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.

Playing the devil’s advocate on Starlink

After SpaceX began to launch its Starlink satellite constellation to facilitate global internet coverage, astronomers began complaining that the satellites are likely to interfere with stargazing schemes, especially those of large, sensitive telescopes. Spaceflight stakeholders also began to worry, especially after SpaceX’s announcement that the Starlink constellation is in fact the precursor to a mega-constellation of at least 12,000 satellites, that it could substantially increase space traffic and complicate satellite navigation.

Neither of these concerns is unfounded, primarily because neither SpaceX nor the branch of the American government responsible for regulating payloads – so by extension the American government itself – should get to decide how to use a resource that belongs to the whole world by itself, without proper multi-stakeholder consultation. With Starlink as its instrument, and assuming the continued absence of proper laws to control how mega-constellations are to be designed and operated, SpaceX will effectively colonise a big chunk of the orbital shells around Earth. The community of astronomers has been especially vocal and agitated over Starlink’s consequences for its work, and a part of it has directed its protests against what it sees as SpaceX’s misuse of space as a global commons, and as a body of shared cultural heritage.

The idea of space as a public commons is neither new nor unique but the ideal has seldom been met. The lopsided development of spaceflight programmes around the world, but particularly in China and the US, attests to this. In the absence of an international space governance policy that is both rigid enough to apply completely to specific situations and flexible enough to adapt to rapid advancements in private spaceflight, people and businesses around the world are at the mercy of countries that possess launch vehicles, the regulatory bodies that oversee their operations and the relationship between the two (or more) governments. So space is currently physically available and profitable only to a select group of countries.

The peaceful and equitable enjoyment of space, going by the definition that astronomers find profitable, is another matter. Both the act and outcomes of stargazing are great sources of wonder for many, if not all, people while space itself is not diminished in any way by astronomers’ activities. NASA’s ‘Astronomy Picture of the Day’ platform has featured hundreds of spectacular shots of distant cosmological features captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, and news of the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope is only met with awe and a nervous excitement over what new gems its hexagonal eyes will discover.

Astronomy often is and has been portrayed as an innocent and exploratory exercise that uncovers the universe’s natural riches, but closer to the ground, where the efforts of its practitioners are located, it is not so innocent. Indeed, it represents one of the major arms of modern Big Science, and one of Big Science’s principal demands is access to large plots of land, often characterised by its proponents as unused land or land deemed unprofitable for other purposes.

Consider Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano in Hawaii with a peak height of 4.2 km above sea level. Its top is encrusted with 13 telescopes, but where astronomers continued to see opportunity to build more (until the TMT became as controversial as it did), Native Hawaiians saw encroachment and destruction to an area they consider sacred. Closer home, one of the principle prongs of resistance to the India-based Neutrino Observatory, a large stationary detector that a national collaboration wants to install inside a small mountain, has been that its construction will damage the surrounding land – land that the collaboration perceives to be unused but which its opponents in Tamil Nadu (where the proposed construction site is located) see, given the singular political circumstances, as an increasingly precious and inviolable resource. This sentiment in turn draws on past and ongoing resistance to the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, the proposed ISRO launchpad at Kulasekarapattinam and the Sterlite copper-smelting plant in Tamil Nadu, and the Challakere ‘science city’ in Karnataka, all along the same lines.

Another way astronomy is problematic is in terms of its enterprise. That is, who operates the telescopes that will be most affected by the Starlink mega-constellation, and with whom do the resulting benefits accrue? Arguments of the ‘fix public transport first before improving spaceflight’ flavour are certainly baseless (for principles as well as practicalities detailed here) but it would be similarly faulty for a working definition of a global commons to originate from a community of astronomers located principally in the West, for whom clear skies are more profitable than access to low-cost internet.

More specifically, to quote Prakash Kashwan, a senior research fellow at the Earth System Governance Project:

The ‘good’ in public good refers to an ‘economic good’ or a thing – as in goods and services – that has two main characteristics: non-excludability and non-rivalry. Non-excludability refers to the fact that once a public good is provided, it is difficult to exclude individuals from enjoying its benefits even if they haven’t contributed to its provisioning. Non-rivalry refers to the fact that the consumption of a public good does not negatively impact other individuals’ ability to also benefit from a public good.

In this definition, astronomy (involving the use of ground-based telescopes) has often been exclusive, whether as a human industry in its need for land and designation of public goods as ‘useless’ or ‘unused’, or as a scientific endeavour, whereby its results accrue unevenly in society especially without public outreach, science communication, transparency, etc. Starlink, on the other hand, is obviously rivalrous.

There’s no question that by gunning for a mega-constellation of satellites enveloping Earth, Musk is being a bully (irrespective of his intentions) – but it’s also true that the prospect of low-cost internet promises to render space profitable to more people than is currently the case. So if arguments against his endeavour are directed along the trajectory that Starlink satellites damage, diminish access to and reduce the usefulness of some orbital regions around Earth, instead of against the US government’s unilateral decision to allow the satellites to be launched in the first place, it should be equally legitimate to claim that these satellites also enhance the same orbital regions by extracting more value from them.

Ultimately, the ‘problem’ is also at risk of being ‘resolved’ because Musk and astronomers have shaken hands on it. The issue isn’t whether astronomers should be disprivileged to help non-astronomers or vice versa, but to consider if astronomers’ comments on the virtues of astronomy gloss over their actions on the ground and – more broadly – to remember the cons of prioritising the character of space as a source of scientific knowledge over other, more germane opportunities, and to remind everyone that the proper course of action would be to do what neither Musk and the American government nor the astronomers have done at the moment. That is, undertake public consultation, such as with stakeholders in all countries party to the Outer Space Treaty, instead of assuming that de-orbiting or anything else for that matter is automatically the most favourable course of action.