Planet Plutocrat.

Date01 November 2021
AuthorGoldstein, Luke

Fleets of low Earth orbit satellites are creating a new global communications infrastructure full of promise and peril. Why are we letting Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos control it?

When Silicon Valley tycoons look up into space today, they see dollar signs: a booming space industry flush with venture capital funding, Wall Street investment, and a hot satellite technology market worth billions of dollars.

But Moriba Jah, a NASA scientist turned ardent space environmentalist, sees doom on the horizon.

On February 12, 2020, Jah testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on the political economy of space and national defense. Called to Washington as a witness from Texas, where he's a professor of aerospace engineering at UT Austin, Jah stood out from the other witnesses. He wore a charcoal-gray suit, a nose ring, and a black kukui nut necklace partially obscured by his dreadlocks.

Jah, who grew up partly in Venezuela before joining the U.S. Air Force, warned the committee about the looming disaster of space debris, which threatens to derail the entire satellite industry as well as future space exploration. The two main culprits are Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Amazon. The tech giants are launching thousands of satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO) with reckless abandon to provide high-speed broadband to underserved areas where terrestrial cable doesn't reach or the connection runs too slowly.

"Every domain of human activity suffers from malicious behavior, and space is no different," Jah told the committee. "Near Earth space is in ... dire need of environmental protection."

Approximately 30,000 space junk parts have accumulated in Earth's orbit since Sputnik's launch in 1957 and currently careen haphazardly through the atmosphere. Because these particles travel at thousands of miles per hour, even a minor impact between an active satellite and a tiny scrap of shrapnel as small as a paint chip is dangerous; eventually, the debris will fall back through the atmosphere and crash to the ground. As Jah's research shows, we don't even know how much junk is out there, because governments haven't conducted proper inventory and only share limited information with other countries' space programs.

"It's a flawed system of governance all the way down the line," Jah told me recently over Zoom.

While space junk has existed for decades, it's evolving into a full-blown crisis because of the sudden overcrowding of commercial space by SpaceX's Starlink program and Project Kuiper, a subsidiary of Amazon. By next year, the companies combined could operate more satellites in low Earth orbit than have ever launched into space, dating back to the 1950s.

The two companies are on track to hold a duopoly over the satellite communications market by rapidly deploying a new generation of satellite technology into low Earth orbit. These nanosatellites deliver fast internet connection by hovering far closer to Earth's surface than the conventional geostationary satellites used by governments and satellite TV providers like Dish. Starlink already has close to 100,000 users who've signed up for its service, and it owns 1,500 active satellites, which is almost half of all satellites in low Earth orbit. The company is launching more every month at a breakneck pace. Amazon lags far behind, but it acquired licenses from the FCC in 2020 to begin launching a constellation of 3,000 satellites.

The upsides of satellite technology shouldn't be discounted. LEO satellites can provide high-speed and low-latency broadband to all corners of the world by flying in huge constellation forms to cover any targeted service areas. In a world where satellite service is widely available, millions of households neglected by telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon could be able to access high-speed internet service for the first time. If the industry is regulated and well managed, LEO satellite communications could finally bridge the digital divide and even provide a competitive alternative to fiber optic cable internet service providers.

Jah recognizes the satellite industry's potential, as he made clear in his testimony to the committee. He joined NASA because of his faith in the utopian potential of satellites to bring about new scientific discoveries and innovations. But Jah believes that government intervention is necessary to manage space debris and ensure that the financial gains of satellites don't set us down a path of dystopian catastrophe.

So far, government agencies have failed to devise a proper regulatory strategy for organizing space as a public good rather than a playground for the egotistical ambitions of billionaires. By rapidly approving both companies' satellite fleets and showering SpaceX with subsidies, regulators have all but given Musk and Bezos the keys to a kingdom in the sky. SpaceX's near-total control over the rocket launch business, which is a barrier to entry, and band spectrum licenses have made the company a de facto arbiter of Earth's orbit.

Monopolizing our satellite communications infrastructure would enrich Musk and Bezos while offloading major environmental, financial, and national security risks onto everyone else. As the companies expand their grip over the telecommunications sector, they'll have unprecedented control over vast amounts of its users' data, from web browser history to location tracking. These companies could also combine their access to customer data with satellite Earth-imaging capabilities, which would create a Truman Show-style system of surveillance beyond the imagination of dystopian sci-fi writers. It's an immense amount of power and private information to put in the hands of two large tech companies.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States lost much of its military rationale for continuing the space race, and with the decline of public investment in general after the 1980s, NASA became a shadow of its old self. Yet other trends were also at work that favored private investment in space. The rise of Silicon Valley venture capital allowed for the funding of risky...

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