Do people have a right to an unobstructed view of the heavens? For most of human history, such a question would have been considered nonsensical—but with the recent rise of satellite mega constellations, it’s now being asked again and again. Mega constellations are vast groups of spacecraft, numbering in the thousands, that could spark a multitrillion-dollar orbital industry and transform global connectivity and commerce. But the rise of mega constellations also threatens to clutter the night sky, disrupt the work of some astronomers and create space debris that harms people on Earth and in space alike. The mega constellation era began in May 2019, when Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX launched the first 60 satellites in its Starlink constellation… Today the constellation’s numbers have swelled to more than 3,000 and account for fully half of all active satellites in space.
Ramon Ryan has argued in the in the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Technology Law that the regulatory approval of these satellites by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) may breach environmental law as part of the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) enacted in 1970. Specifically, he argued that the natural aesthetic of the night sky and the profession of astronomy may be protected under NEPA—but that the FCC has so far sidestepped NEPA’s oversight , thanks to a “categorical exclusion” the agency was granted in 1986 (when it simply wasn’t licensing that many satellites)….
In November 2022, the US General Accounting Office (GAO) published a report that suggest that the FCC should revisit its categorical exclusion from NEPA and consider whether it should update its procedures in light of the rise of mega constellations. “We think they need to revisit [the categorical exclusion] because the situation is so different than it was in 1986,” says Andrew Von Ah, a director at the GAO…The White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) recommends that agencies “revisit things like categorical exclusions once every seven years,” Von Ah says. But the FCC “hasn’t really done that since 1986.”
According to the report’s recommendations, the FCC should review whether mega constellations affect the environment…The findings showed there were concerns in a number of areas, not just the brightness of the satellites but also the collision risk they pose in space and the possible creation of space junk, the interference to radio astronomy caused by satellite radio transmissions and even the potential for satellites reentering the atmosphere to affect Earth’s climate or harm humans on the ground. ..
The day after the GAO report’s release, the FCC announced the creation of a new bureau for its space activities, which will help the agency handle the applications for 64,000 new satellites it is presently considering…
Excerpts from Jonathan O’Callaghan Satellite Constellations Could Harm the Environment, New Watchdog Report Says, Scientific American, November 24, 2022