Is SpaceX’s Starlink Mega constellation an environmental issue? The FCC says ‘no’


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has said SpaceX’s Starlink constellation does not require an environmental review, after concerns were raised about its impact on the night sky and atmosphere.

In May 2019, SpaceX began the launch and deployment of its Starlink constellation, a planned group of up to 42,000 orbiting satellites designed to transmit the Internet to Earth from space.

About 1,500 have been launched into orbit to date, about half 3000 active satellites operated by other organizations.

The goal is to provide global Internet coverage, with users able to access Starlink anywhere in the world using a dish to connect to the network, at a cost of $ 99 per month and a initial material fee of $ 499.

Yet considerable concerns have been raised about constellations like Starlink, particularly how satellites might change the appearance of the night sky and add large amounts of matter to the atmosphere.

Last month, the FCC responded to some of these concerns, saying they were unfounded. But a Starlink competitor, Viasat, now wants Starlink’s launches to halt until the matter is investigated in more detail.

The problems relate to the brightness of the satellites. After the launch of this first batch of 60 satellites two years ago, many were alarmed that the satellites appeared as bright strings of light in the night sky.

This has had an impact on astronomy before, with professional astronomers having their work hampered by satellites, which are most visible at dawn and dusk – popular times for certain types of astronomy.

In early 2020, it was suggested that this overnight modification, for both astronomy and the general public, could be in violation of US environmental law, in particular the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

Currently, FCC shares are exempt from environmental review under NEPA, but last year Vanderbilt University law student Ramon Ryan argued that this should not be the case.

“The FCC has never done a study showing why commercial satellites deserved to be categorized as categorically excluded from review,” he said last year in an article for American scientist.

“And the evidence shows that these satellites have an environmental impact. If the FCC were prosecuted for NEPA non-compliance, it would likely lose. “

Last month, the FCC granted a modification SpaceX’s Starlink app, allowing them to lower the altitudes of about 3,000 upcoming satellites from over 1,100 kilometers to about 550 kilometers.

And in its documentation Authorizing the change, the FCC responded to some of NEPA’s concerns, which had been raised to the FCC by a competitor of Starlink, the US communications company Viasat.

His conclusion was that an environmental review was not necessary.

“Having examined the file and the allegations … we conclude that the issues raised do not justify the need for a [Environmental Assessment]Said the FCC.

The FCC said SpaceX has taken steps to darken its satellites – with varying levels of success – which would allay some of the concerns of astronomers and the public.

However, the FCC noted that it “would continue to monitor this situation and SpaceX’s efforts to meet its commitments in this matter.”

And he called on SpaceX to continue working with affected communities like astronomers.

“Although we do not find that the file before us deserves the preparation of a [Environmental Assessment] under NEPA, we conclude that it would nonetheless serve the public interest under the Communications Act for SpaceX to ensure that it does not unduly burden astronomy and other research efforts, ” said the FCC.

Viasat, however, has since asked the FCC to halt all SpaceX Starlink launches until an environmental review is complete.

“We believe the FCC has failed to conduct a legally required environmental review under NEPA and has failed to deliver on the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to a science-based approach,” said Viasat in a May 21 file. News.

Viasat said if the FCC did not review its recent clearance by June 1, also to investigate issues with a large number of satellites burning in the atmosphere, it would take its complaint to the United States Court of Appeals. United States for the District of Columbia circuit.

It is not known at this time what the outcome of this action will be or whether the FCC would be required to conduct an environmental review of Starlink and other mega constellations like Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

At this time, the FCC is adamant that there are no environmental concerns from Starlink. Now, it may soon be time for the courts to decide whether they agree.


About Hannah Schaeffer

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