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  • Aranya Chatterjee and Raj Shekhar

A Revolution Called Starlink and The Future of Space Commercialization: Understanding the.......

[This article has been authored by Aranya Chatterjee, a second year law student at Bharati Vidhyapeeth Deemed University, Pune, and Raj Shekhar, a second year law student at National University of Study and Research in Law, Ranchi.]


A Revolution Called Starlink and The Future of Space Commercialization: Understanding the Legal Implications


The announcement of SpaceX megaproject ‘Starlink’, an ambitious project which aims to diversify the reach of the internet to the remotest of places by the way of satellite internet constellation, has raised concerns regarding the overall management of the system and the potential treaty violations it could lead to.


Last year in the month of June, a total of 58 satellites were launched, followed by 310 this year which have made the satellite count rise to 1200 with the majority of these being placed in the Lower Earth Orbit. Such huge numbers of satellites and their deployment has raised a number of legal concerns regarding the right to view space, astronomers’ rights and debris management. This article aims to analyse these issues and strives to understand the legality of the ‘Starlink’ project.


Ground-Based Explorers v. Space-Based/Corporate Explorers: The Legal Conundrum


The primary law that governs space is termed as ‘international space law’. It is seen as a direct outcome of the five space treaties which were adopted under the direct supervision of the United Nations, namely the Outer Space Treaty, the Rescue Agreement, the Liability Convention, the Registration Convention and the Moon Agreement. The laws governing the present issue shall fall under Article 1 of the Outer Space Treaty which states that the use of outer space and celestial bodies is to be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all mankind. It prohibits any kind of discrimination and ensures that every nation shall be free to access, study and explore space freely.


Based on how they study space, experts can be classified as ground-based explorers and space-based/satellite-based explorers. As the names suggest, the former studies space from ground-based observatories, while the latter does it through the aid of artificial satellites in space. While the space-based group of explorers are potentially unaffected by the launch of Starlink satellites, the interference caused by these satellites could very well affect ground-based explorers.


The reflection by these artificial metallic objects would make them appear as a slow-moving dot of light in the night sky. This would effectively cripple the accuracy of ground-based observatories which would be at a high risk of misinterpreting these as stars and generating erroneous data. Further, the transmission by these satellites can also affect the overall astronomical recordings and observations which will be detrimental to the ground-based explorers and would be in gross violation of Article 1 of the Outer Space Treaty as it would directly affect the right of nations to freely study, access and explore the space.


To have a better understanding of what might be the consequences we can refer to the recent Neowise Comet incident. The comet which came in close proximity to the sun after almost 7000 years saw its moment of glory being ruined by a Starlink satellite which blocked the clear line of sight.


The Night Sky View: NEPA and the Detrimental Effects of Starlink


These shiny artificial satellites lead to the creation of a trail that disrupts the vision of the night sky. Operations such as Starlink, need to be approved by the Federal Communications Corporation while taking into consideration the National Environmental Policy Act, 1970 (NEPA).


NEPA aims to strike a delicate balance between humans [AS1] as well as the environment and biosphere. However, this narrow interpretation of the word environment, which fails to include orbital space around earth as a part of it, is insufficient to evaluate projects like Starlink. Any program before getting approved under NEPA would be evaluated based on its impact on land, water, air, structures, living organisms, environmental values at the site or sites, and the social, cultural and economic aspects. However, projects like Starlink which affect the orbital space, which even though is not included in this definition but has a significant impact on the other included aspects, would be successful in evading the scrutiny.[AS2][AS3]


We can conclude that the current definition is too narrow considering the giant scientific leaps that mankind has taken towards space explorations. Thus, to keep an effective check on such large scale commercial launches, it is pertinent to make relevant changes to the entire idea of NEPA and its application. The first of such changes could be expanding the definition of ‘environment’ to regularise this grey area of Earth’s orbital space.


The Threat of Space Debris and Pollution


One of the major threats that the existence of such a large number of Starlink satellites pose is that debris. Freely floating masses of debris would increase the probability of collisions between two or more such satellites. Further, an entire fleet of satellites can cause disruptions to the future launch of other satellites or space exploration missions. The collision between one satellite could cause a domino effect affecting all others in orbit.


Such a huge amount of revolving space debris would add to the already growing issue of space pollution, especially in the earth’s orbital space. This would effectively lead to the crippling of the capability of ground-based observatories. Therefore, it could potentially be a ‘discriminatory and disruptive move’ which shall fall foul of Article 1 of the Outer Space Treaty.


Changing Dynamics of Global Internet and Communication Technology


In the late 1990s, fleets of mobile-communication satellites were deployed in the circular orbit called as the Geostationary Orbit (“GSO”) which lies roughly 35000 km above the earth’s equator. However, with the development of advanced technologies, scientists developed space-based communication systems which can be deployed and maintained well under 2000 km above the equator called as the Lower Earth Orbit (“LEO”).


While the GSO based satellites could provide much larger coverage, the satellites being launched under Starlink are LEO deployed which enables them to provide extensive coverage to the Earth’s surface over which they have been deployed. Subsequently when a large number of satellites were deployed in the GSO, it came to be recognized as a scarce natural resource, under Article 44 of the Constitution of the International Telecommunication Union. As a result, companies involved in telecommunication started to move towards LEO based deployments, leading to the present case of Starlink.


The Global North and South Debate: Does Cheap Internet come at a "Price"?


Starlink has been dubbed as a game changer for the future of global internet connectivity. With its potential to provide uninterrupted high-speed uplinks to the remotest of places with close to having no infrastructure requirements; the prospects are innumerable. However, is the ‘poorer’ global south going to pay a ‘huge’ price for the promised ‘cheap’ internet access?


There is a stark difference between the global South and the North when it comes to space exploration capabilities. The rockets that are launched are generally limited to a one time use, and the overall rocket propellant fuel procurement is an expensive task too. The financial stability of the developed nations such as USA, Canada, etc. allows them to invest huge amounts of finances into space exploration programs.


Thus, unlike their counterparts the poorer global South relies on ground-based observatories that are relatively less expensive and much more cost effective than actual space flights. As deliberated, the effect of Starlink will be extremely detrimental to these nations whose space exploration models would be rendered useless. This would effectively deprive them of an equal opportunity to compete in the space race and can be yet again seen as ‘discriminatory and disruptive’. Hence, the so-called ‘cheap’ connectivity would force these nations to pay the unwanted ‘high price’ of space exploration deprivation.


Conclusion


It's impossible to put a halt to the commercialization of space but an intervention towards a sustainable model of commercialization-cum-development may hold the key to all future projects. It is evident that Starlink significantly has more issues than what meets the eye, be it risk of potential environmental pollution through space debris, violation of astronomer’s right to freely observe space or potential risk of destruction of other essential man-made objects in its vicinity. Clearly, such issues are incapable of being dealt with by the current legislative framework. As a suggestion, a new global code of conduct or legislation governing the orbital sphere of Earth must be introduced which focuses on building a sustainable future for space commercialisation. Alternately, this could also be achieved through expanding the definition of ‘Environment’ under the NEPA to impose stricter liability on companies that foster innovation, which eventually balances the right to access space without compromising on the global reach to share mankind’s heritage of space.

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