What can we do?
Are we powerless in the face of technological progress, and commercial pressure? I don’t think so. Professional astronomers, astronautics specialists, industry scientists, and others are working hard on technical working groups. Not everybody can help with that, but here are some things everybody can do.
Learn more: key websites
- The new IAU Centre for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference, aka IAU-CPS
- Action Against Satellite Light Pollution
- Jonathan McDowell’s Large LEO Constellations Page
Learn more: key documents
There have been many articles, videos and blog posts on this topic. The book has lots of links you can follow. There are three key definitive reports:
The Dark and Quiet Skies report: from a conference and working group set up by the International Astronomical Union. It deals with light pollution as well the satellite problem.
The JASON report: a report covering the debris problem as well as optical and radio astronomy, written by a US government independent science advisory panel.
The first and second GAO reports: The US Government Accountability Office issued two crucial reports in 2022. The first one is a very general Technical Assessment of the potential problems caused by Large Constellations of Satellites. The second report specifically addresses whether the FCC is justified in applying a “categorical exclusion” under NEPA – the issue at the heart of the legal appeal I was involved in – see below.
There are a number of technical/scientific articles on various aspects (see links in the book), but the one I would recommend most is The Case for Space Environmentalism, led by yours truly. I also strongly recommend this paper by Boley and Myers.
Join in: submit a letter to the FCC about the proposed 30,000 Starlink satellites
Try your own letter! I recommend that you keep it short, and relate it to your personal experience.
Explanation: The process by which a project such as Starlink or Kuiper etc get permission to ahead is quite complicated and multi-faceted especially because some of the issues we are concerned about do not yet have a natural regulatory home. For the moment however, the key stage is the review of applications made to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC). They license the use of radio spectrum for communications for US based projects, which then cascades upwards to the ITU. However, they also require to see some sort of debris mitigation plan, and some of us have been trying to persuade them to consider light pollution as well. In the long term, the FCC probably shouldn’t be the right gatekeeper for such things, but for now its the only game in town. In April 2021, as part of the FCC review of the SpaceX Generation-1 proposal I submitted a letter, arguing that approval should be indefinitely deferred. This was a drop in the ocean of course, but it was as close as I have to a personal manifesto, so I made it public. (Technically, it was part of proceedings reviewing a proposal to modify the original proposal).
FCC approved the Gen-1 fleet of ~4400 satellites, and that system is approaching completion. As I write (Sept 2022) the FCC are actively reviewing the Gen-2 proposal, for 30,000 additional satellites, each of which is ten times more massive than the Gen-1 satellites. I have now submitted a letter to that review, which I offer for your interest. It would be really good if as many people as possible also submitted letters. Feel free to use mine as a starting point, but please make sure you put things in your own words, relate it to your own perspective, use your own images if you have them, and preferably keep it short and punchy. The problem however is that the FCC website is arcane and mystifying. It reminds me of that bit in The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where it turns out that the Council Consultation regarding the New Bypass is available in a locked cabinet in the basement, behind the door marked Beware Of The Leopard. So, I am pleased to let you know that I persuaded some industry colleagues to write up a blow-by-blow guide on how to file a submission. Here it is. Good luck!
Some key points:
- Megaconstellations are bad for
– astronomical science,
– the public right to the sky, and
– the safe sustainability of commercial activity in space
- Technical and legal review processes are underway
– wait for the results !
– this is new and difficult
Perspective: The Legal Appeal to NEPA
In the USA, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) says that federal agencies must undertake an Environmental Assessment if a decision they are considering taking may have an environmental impact. The FCC have always argued that they have a “categorical exemption” and also that NEPA does not apply to space activities. Following the approval of the Starlink Gen-1 system, another satellite company, Viasat, and an environmental organisation known as the Balance Group, appealed in the US Courts of Appeals against the FCC order on the grounds that NEPA should have applied and an environmental assessment carried out. I was approached by Viasat and agree to write an independent “Amicus Brief” in support of their appeal – a kind of expert witness statement – which I did with the help of Meredith Rawls and Moriba Jah, and many more anonymous contributors. This was submitted on August 13th. It is a public document, so I provide it here for anybody who is interested:
The Amicus Brief is of course in fairly impenetrable legalese, but it then morphed into the scientific article we published in Nature Astronomy:
As you may have seen reported in the media, the Court rejected the appeal. Here is the Court Opinion. However, it is important to understand why the appeal was rejected.
The Court ruled that neither party had appropriate “standing” and therefore the Court did not “reach the merits of their claim”. The idea that a NEPA environmental review should occur in the context of a proposal to the FCC such as the Starlink one, was therefore untested – but in my opinion remains extremely strong. Viasat did not succeed in establishing standing as Environmental Appellants because of the requirement to show injury that is “actual, imminent or certainly impending” rather than “a speculative possibility of future injury”. The Balance Group’s stated injury was deemed to be not backed by sufficiently concrete evidence. Notably, the Court decision does not show that the FCC were correct in choosing to ignore NEPA, only that the appellants did not demonstrate actual injury caused by the order in question. Although an appeal requires actual rather than possible injury, an Environmental Assessment required under NEPA must of course consider injury that may happen to many possible future parties. Furthermore, the wording of the discussion in the Court opinion implies that they did not rule out including the effect of harms arising from activities in orbital space as part of the environmental harms covered by NEPA.
The NRDC/IDA document. As part of the FCC review of the Starlink Gen-2 proposal (see above) an important submission was made which I think is a key next step in the legal argument over application of NEPA. The submission was made jointly by the National Resource Defence Council (NRDC) and the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), and suggests that the use of “categorical exclusion” by the FCC is illegal, and that they must carry out an Environmental Assessment before approving Starlink Gen-2. You can read their document here. Update: SpaceX have filed a rather cross response to the NRDC/IDA document, arguing as forcefully as they can that NEPA does not apply outside the USA, and therefore does not apply to space.
If you are a professional astronomer, you should sign the Astronomers Appeal, set up by Stefano Gallozzi. As a member of the public, it is more appropriate to sign the Losing the night sky appeal at Avaaz.
Action Against Satellite Light Pollution
This is both a Facebook Page and a public website, with lots of useful information, updated quite often. The Facebook page is a private group but you can of course request to join if you want to follow what is going on.
Write to your local representative
i.e. Member of Parliament, Congress Person etc, letting them know what you think – for example that space should be treated as part of the natural environment, or that you are worried we will end up with space advertising, or whatever. Politicians (in most countries…) take letters from citizens very seriously. They assume that for every person that writes, another thousand feel the same way. The Royal Astronomical Society is I believe working on a template letter for people to use.
Global internet is great, but it doesn’t need to be done this way
No we can’t just fix the streaks in software
Space is getting dangerously crowded