We’re at a critical crossroads both in space and here on Earth, where we face a tragedy of the commons that risks losing the benefits of satellites that we currently enjoy for generations. This includes broadband connectivity, predicting the weather, monitoring climate change, supporting critical utilities, enabling navigation and transportation systems, enhancing food production, and exploring the universe — because certain new satellite systems being proposed not only unreasonably shift significant costs and burdens on others, but also threaten to preclude new competitive and innovative services.
We have learned over many decades that reasonable guardrails need to be put in place to ensure that the limited part of space near Earth that we use for satellites remains open and available for all nations to share, so that we all can enjoy the myriad benefits that access to space provides.
In response to concerns about a few countries dominating space, the ITU’s Constitution was amended to emphasize the need to ensure the “rational, equitable, efficient and economical use” of all orbits. This includes uses by countries whose space programs may develop at a different pace than those of historical space-faring nations.
We know there are limits to how geostationary (GSO) orbits can be used, and we have developed rules that reflect those limits and maximize opportunities for all nations to use GSO. In fact, six decades after the first commercial GSO satellite was launched, we still have new GSO systems being launched that offer more advanced and more cost-effective services than ever before. Competition and innovation thrive in GSO because we learned how to share —and we did not allow a few nations or operators to consume all of the GSO resources.
But that is not the case in low earth orbit (LEO). We don’t yet have similar rules to ensure the sustainable use of LEO. We have not yet ascertained how many and what kind of satellites sustainably and safely can be deployed in different LEO orbits or the level of impact on the atmosphere, the night sky, and critical astronomical research we are willing to sacrifice as the price of commercializing LEO.
Fortunately, a growing recognition exists that such limits exist, and intensive efforts are underway to quantify those limits, help us manage matters so we can operate within those limits, and do so before it is too late.
Viasat is proud to contribute to the science that is helping us all to understand these issues. We have authored the first study that attempts to quantify how much of our shared and limited spectrum and orbital resources in LEO would remain available for others if certain unprecedented uses of LEO are allowed to proceed.
Entitled LEO Capacity Modeling for Sustainable Design, this quantitative analysis is important to help policymakers and concerned citizens understand:
- What opportunities will remain available for innovation and competition by others if we stay on the current path;
- How we can maximize those opportunities by managing the use of LEO (much like we manage other shared resources) and by developing physically smaller, but more powerful, and less-environmentally-harmful, LEO satellites;
- How we can facilitate geo-political stability by not allowing a few nations to consume undue portions of the world’s limited resources to the exclusion of others; and
- When we may reach a tipping point that could leave us trapped for decades under a layer of our own trash in space that disrupts vital satellite-based services on which we rely for communications, security/defense, and science, and that prevents continued exploration of space beyond Earth.
This research is also a valuable tool for nations to use when determining the terms and conditions under which they grant market access within their territories to LEO broadband systems from other countries. Indeed, as leading courts, educational institutions, and other experts recognize, those types of national decisions are the only practical way to address the looming crisis in LEO.
In fact, national decisions are the only practical means by which nations can determine how their share of limited natural resources in LEO should be utilized. If we wait for international treaties to develop, it simply will be too late because LEO will have filled up in the meantime.
We now have the science to inform our policy decisions about LEO. Let’s all work as a matter of urgency to ensure that the benefits of LEO are widely available to all nations and remain available for generations to come.