EU, US Start To Realize Letting Elon Musk Dictate Global Space Rules Might Not Be The Brightest Idea
from the who-needs-a-plan? dept
As previously noted, Space X, Amazon, and others are pushing harder than ever into the low-orbit satellite broadband game. The industry, pockmarked by a long road of failures, involves firing thousands of smaller, cheaper, lower orbit satellite constellations into space to help supplement existing broadband services. The lower orbit means that LO satellite service will offer lower-latency broadband than traditional satellite offerings, which for 15 years or so have been widely maligned as expensive, slow, and “laggy,” with annoying monthly caps.
And while these services should absolutely help bring some additional options to rural Americans, nautical ventures, and those out of range of traditional service, folks shouldn’t get their hopes up in terms of broader disruption of the uncompetitive U.S. telecom market. The physics involved in satellite transmission means there will always be limited capacity and odd throttling and network management restrictions, meaning it won’t really make much headway in highly monopolized major metro areas. In short, the tech is absolutely a positive advancement, but it’s not going to be the game changer many think.
Enter the other major problem: the gold rush into the low orbit satellite space without much in the way of regulatory oversight has resulted in an explosion of space traffic and debris that’s already causing genuine harm. The tens of thousands of additional low orbit satellites being flung into orbit without much of an over-arching plan not only make space navigation immeasurably more complicated and dangerous, the light pollution created is having clear and profound harms on astronomy and other research. Harms researchers say can’t be mitigated with technology.
While regulators in the U.S. have taken a few steps to mitigate space debris, most experts say it’s not enough. And regulators have done even less to manage the low-orbit gold rush’s impact on science. Generally, the modus operandi has been to kiss the ass of companies like Amazon and Space X in this space, letting them dictate the cadence and rules of deployment. The same approach is occurring in the EU, and it’s starting to raise some hackles:
The head of the European Space Agency has urged the continent’s leaders to stop facilitating Elon Musk’s ambition to dominate the new space economy, warning that the lack of coordinated action meant the US billionaire was “making the rules” himself. Josef Aschbacher, the new director-general of ESA, said that Europe’s readiness to help the rapid expansion of Musk’s Starlink satellite Internet service risked hindering the region’s own companies from realizing the potential of commercial space.
Again it’s effectively global regulatory capture, where wealth dictates who gets to make the rules. Eventually that won’t just be bad for competition, but science. That you need an intelligent, over-arching plan to manage this massive explosion in debris and space traffic that considers more than just wealth generation seems like a no brainer. Yet you’re only just now starting to see some folks in policy and government start to mention that letting Elon (COVID is no big deal) Musk dictate the entire planet’s space policy and regulatory structure might not be the smartest idea:
“Aschbacher said Musk’s Starlink was already so big that it was difficult for regulators or rivals to catch up. “You have one person owning half of the active satellites in the world. That’s quite amazing. De facto, he is making the rules. The rest of the world including Europe… is just not responding quick enough.”
Aschbacher’s concerns were echoed by Franz Fayot, Luxembourg’s economy minister, who said new rules were needed to ensure the safe use of space.
“You have people like Elon Musk, just launching constellations and satellites and throwing Teslas up into orbit. We need to set common rules. Colonization, or just doing things in a completely deregulated space, is a concern,” he said on the sidelines of the New Space conference in Luxembourg.
It’s not too surprising that captured regulators in the U.S., UK, and EU are going to bend over backwards to please the planet’s wealthiest men. Especially given that Space X has truly been so innovative in the space. The problem is even Musk has acknowledged that low-orbit efforts like Starlink may not be financially viable over the long haul. And that was before recently leaked Musk emails showing how delays in Raptor engine production could keep Starlink from meeting future deployment goals or making at real money at scale.
Yet U.S. regulators keep throwing millions of dollars at Musk (a guy who professes to be opposed to government aid), and generally has let Bezos and Musk dictate the cadence and scope of anything vaguely resembling oversight. Despite no solid evidence that Musk’s low-orbit Starlink venture is even going to be financially viable or operational two to three years from now. And with nary a peep about the low-orbit light pollution researchers have complained about for three years straight. Surely none of this ends badly, right?