Higher demand for broadband means more satellites in orbit
Companies around the globe are launching an increasing number of satellites, crowding Earth's orbit in an effort to satisfy the ravenous on-demand desire for more broadband, satellite television and communications.
In the past five years, the number of operational satellites has jumped 40 percent, and nearly 1,400 now orbit the Earth. Industry officials say that number could more than double in five years as a revolution in technology has made satellites smaller and more affordable. Entrepreneurs eye the ethereal real estate a couple of hundred miles up as a potentially lucrative new market.
Companies such as OneWeb, Boeing and SpaceX plan to put up constellations of small satellites that could number in the hundreds, if not thousands, and beam the internet to the billions of people not yet connected.
Just last month, Boeing filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission that would allow it to send up nearly 3,000 satellites for broadband services.
But U.S. officials are concerned about all the traffic in space and the lack of oversight. Although the Pentagon tracks objects orbiting the globe and warns of close approaches, it does not have the power to order an operator to move a satellite out of the way to avoid a collision.
Some members of Congress think a civilian agency, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, should be made responsible for managing satellite traffic. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), has led that effort, saying the Pentagon should focus instead "on how do we fight and win wars in space."
He has introduced legislation that would give the FAA authority to monitor objects in space and play the role of traffic cop, warning operators when satellites are dangerously close to one another.
The FAA would have the power to order operators to move satellites when necessary, Bridenstine said, and to require that satellites have propulsion systems to maneuver and transponders for better tracking. It would be up to the FAA, not Congress, to come up with the exact regulations, he said.
"As space becomes more congested and contested and competitive, there needs to be an agency with unambiguous authority that can compel somebody to maneuver," Bridenstine said.
There is no guarantee the bill will pass anytime soon. And if it does, giving the FAA jurisdiction in space would require additional resources at a time of tight budgets. Creating rules of the road in space would also be an immense and complicated regulatory challenge. Bridenstine said he would favor only "light-touch" regulations, but some interested parties fear a new set of rules would impose a costly burden on U.S. satellite operators and put them at a disadvantage with competitors in other countries that would not have to abide by them.
Tom Stroup, the president of the Satellite Industry Association, said the industry "wants to make sure that any transition that takes place is carefully thought through." The FAA, or any other government agency tasked with the job, should have "sufficient resources to do it properly," he said.
Any regulation should be drafted so that it "doesn't drive business away," he said. And the rules have to provide "an international solution," he added, palatable to foreign governments and businesses, much the way air traffic is managed across international borders.
Defense officials say such an approach would help them focus on the possibility of hostilities in space.
"It's clear that we're going to need a way to regulate that traffic just as we have a way to regulate air traffic," said Douglas Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy.
Establishing rules of the road would not only help military satellites avoid collisions, he said, but also head off conflicts over nations' satellites coming too close to other pieces of sensitive equipment.
The discussion comes as companies pursue plans to launch constellations of satellites that have become smaller and cheaper, much the way computers have gone from massive mainframes to smartphones. Satellites once were as big as garbage trucks, costing hundreds of millions of dollars. Now there are versions as small as dishwashers, or shoe boxes -- or even smaller.
The imagery of Earth that such devices provide could help weather forecasters, farmers and scientists studying climate change; aid rescue workers and guide soldiers on the ground.
"There have been a lot of technological developments as well as a recognition that broadband access is the equivalent today to what electricity was 100 years ago," Stroup said. "There's a feeling there's a market opportunity and a cost-effective means for providing that service that didn't exist 20 years ago."
OneWeb, in a joint venture with Airbus that is also backed by business magnate Richard Branson, plans to put up nearly 700 satellites, beginning in 2018. The company is opening an $85 million manufacturing facility near NASA's Kennedy Space Center that it says will be able to build more than 15 satellites a week.
"OneWeb's mission is to bring the entire world online to improve quality of life and spur economic and national development where it's needed most," Greg Wyler, the founder of OneWeb, has said.
Elon Musk's SpaceX is best known for launching rockets that deliver commercial satellites to space and carry cargo to the International Space Station. But Musk has discussed plans to launch as many as 4,000 satellites that would provide broadband service to all parts of the globe. He said the effort "would be like rebuilding the internet in space."
Last year, SpaceX asked the federal government for permission to begin a test project and said that if all goes as planned, the service could be running within five years.
Raytheon, meanwhile, is building 50-pound "disposable satellites" for the Pentagon that could stay aloft for 60 to 90 days and provide soldiers with real-time imagery of the battlefield.
In its application to the FCC, Boeing said that it was aware of OneWeb's plans and that it would work with the firm "to develop an analysis of the potential risk of collision" and to prevent collisions from occurring.
Some observers were skeptical of leaving it to satellite companies to regulate themselves.
"Do they pinkie promise?" said Brian Weeden, a technical adviser to the Secure World Foundation. "What if the two can't come to an agreement?"
Bridenstine is also wary of self-regulation. If a company knew, for example, that there was a 1-in-10,000 chance of a collision, he said, he feared that it might decide to live with that level of risk and not perform a costly maneuver.
"The problem is that analysis is what's in the best interest for the bottom line of that company," he said.
And the consequences, if there were a collision, could be severe, he said: "It could create 5,000 pieces of debris that will be up there for 100 years."