Traffic Ahead: Satellites in Orbit

Earth’s orbit is about to get a lot more crowded. According to documents filed with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), SpaceX wants to put over 4,000 satellites in orbit. While the full constellation would take time to deploy, at least 800 initial launches would be used to provide communications services to the entire United States. SpaceX is not the only company proposing such a satellite constellation. OneWeb is aiming to deploy a 700 satellite constellation, and Boeing plans to eventually deploy almost 3,000 of its own satellites.

These constellations could fundamentally change communications on Earth. But there is a problem: even if only one constellation is launched, that is a significant uptick in the number of satellites in orbit. To put things in perspective, there are currently only around 1,400 operational satellites in orbit today. That does not count the many non-operational satellites still in orbit, as well as pieces of debris.

It may be that plans for such large-scale constellation deployments will not come to fruition, at least in the sizes proposed. There exists skepticism both around market viability and government approval of the requests. That such plans are even being considered, however, indicates how the space environment has changed. Reduced costs to access, along with technological developments, could dramatically increase the number of satellites in orbit. The United States has a range of questions it must answer before it is ready for this influx.

Closer to home, the United States will have to decide how it will balance these launches with airspace flight paths. Each launch and reentry poses possible problems with flights, and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cordons off large volumes of airspace to prevent danger to the public. Currently, the FAA uses a case-by-case approach to space launches and reentries. As the pace of launches increases, however, the current approach will likely prove ineffective. Between 1988 and 2015, the agency licensed 250 commercial launches and reentries. Even with multiple satellites per launch, deploying thousands of satellites will undoubtedly place new stress on the system.

The FAA is looking into updating its approach and integrating more automation, but that process is ongoing. There is a deeper question involved as well: what is the optimal balance between allowing launches and keeping airspace from being overly disrupted? Is it fair to impose costs on airlines to allow the development of a new industry? Is it fair to prevent the maturation of a new industry because of the costs imposed on a pre-existing industry? The U.S. government may be forced to answer these questions as companies forge ahead with their satellite launch plans.

There will also be questions about whether such large constellations will result in a more active space traffic management system. At the moment, launches and reentries are licensed in the United States, but there is no regulatory structure for moving objects while they are in orbit. The number of satellites in orbit, and the extent of space debris, is already a concern weighing on policymakers. This issue will be exacerbated by such large constellations, particularly if there is the frequent need for operators to maneuver satellites around debris or other satellites. The United States will have to decide what role it should have in decisions about such in-orbit operations.

The rise of these large constellations also ties into ongoing debates over space situational awareness (SSA). American SSA is currently managed by the Air Force, though the commercial component may be passed off to the FAA. But if the future of space sees thousands of new satellites in orbit, would that arrangement be agile enough? The ability of commercial actors in space to avoid problems may rest on their own real-time ability to conduct SSA. Perhaps a collaboration between the government, companies, and other private institutions like universities would be a better system. There are other questions to take into account, though, such as how the increase in satellites and SSA arrangements would affect national security and international relations.

All of this is not to say that large constellations should not move forward — the benefits, particularly for communications in remote and poor places, would likely be large. The space economy already contributes hundreds of billions of dollars to the global economy, and that would likely grow with new uses of space. More demand for launches will spur innovation and drive down costs of launches and space services. This will benefit everyone from entrepreneurs to the U.S. military.

Hard questions over the future of commercial outer space remain, and SpaceX’s application for its constellation makes considering these issues even more pressing. Decisions made in the next several years may shape how the U.S. uses space for decades to come.


Originally published at niskanencenter.org on November 21, 2016.