The privatization of near-Earth space is fast approaching, with new opportunities in low Earth orbit getting headlines, inspiring startups, and gaining attention from investors. Now that internet access has become essential for daily life, satellite companies are racing to corner the services market for high-speed, low-cost global internet coverage.
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As a result, the number of small satellites in our skies is expected to grow tremendously, hitting upwards of 100,000 in the next decade. Populating near orbit with space debris risks repeating the errors of colonization by imperialists, and we must consider what impact the increased satellite constellations will have on humanity.
For this reason, it is important for all stakeholders be included in space decisions, and governments must advocate for laws that would recognize space as a shared resource with both cultural and scientific significance. Therefore, it is vital to use policy and regulation to ensure near-Earth space does not become another exhausted natural resource.
Eye on IoT and Space Research
Low Earth orbit is becoming privatized by companies such as SpaceX, OneWeb, and LeoStat, aiming to bring satellite broadband to the entire globe.
These small satellites will also offer high bandwidth, low latency, secure communications for business operations. Current efforts are to reach 100 percent coverage in domains such as permanent global surveillance and imaging.
In addition, these small satellites are accelerating technologies around IoT to revolutionize international business, government, Maritime, energy, telecommunications, and improvements in science.
Experts believe that beyond the benefits, this increase of satellites in near-earth orbit poses a crisis because there’s still little or no synchronized international regulation on the production and launch of these satellites.
Ethical considerations have also been discussed as there is a growing concern that the space race is leaving out communities who should have a voice when space decisions are deliberated.
Critics believe several questions should be asked regarding what is at stake for humans in light of the growing cultural and scientific impact of these new LEO satellite systems. It is recommended that near-Earth space be regulated and protected as a resource like water, land, and air are protected on earth.
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Impact on Astronomy
Light pollution from the presence of tens of thousands of satellites cluttering near-earth space may have a negative affect our ability to observe the cosmos.
Some interference problems may be circumvented by darkening the satellites, making them smaller, or scheduling observations between constellation fly-bys. In other words, the only other way to avoid impacting the astrological community would be to ban satellite launches completely—an unlikely scenario.
Treaties, Use of Space and Space Law
The SATCON 1 workshop, partly organized by the American Astronomical Society and funded by the National Science Foundation, was held as part of an inquiry to investigate the impact brought by these small satellites. The report concluded that the negative consequences to ground-based telescopes and observation facilities are unavoidable, and the coming swarms of satellite constellations will impact every facet of astrological research.
Additionally, the impact of space debris caused by a growing number of objects in orbit will continue to grow and pose the risk of filling space with junk from collisions of satellites against each other.
As of now, a few treaties aim to regulate space and the launch of satellites. Agreements such as the Outer Space Treaty aim to unite humanity into a common front to protect space. But the emergence of space billionaires like Elon Musk and Richard Branson poses a risk as their activities are not accountable to the public.
The time is now to consider the short and long-term impacts of further exploration into space on our environment. Examining existing objects, post-mission disposal (PMD), and atmospheric emissions from rocket launches are all topics that require critical consideration and investigation.
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The End of Dark Skies?
The growth of investment in satellite constellations coupled with the lack of oversight, accountability, or a common agenda is a recipe for disaster. The ability to observe the stars hits the heart of man’s cultural and scientific relation to the sky, impacting age-old traditions and practices exercised by people all over the world. The privatization of space stands to benefit humanity by advancing the ubiquity of the internet and increasing the reliability of global industrial solutions and applications. But we must consider the impact of satellite constellations, weigh their merits, deficiencies, and insists that all of humanity be included in discussions around the development, deployment, and regulation of space activities.