A federal agency probably violated federal law by licensing SpaceX to launch thousands of satellites into orbit. And this finding could create opportunities for disgruntled astronomers to sue the agency.
Specifically, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved SpaceX’s proposal to launch the orbit of thousands of satellites in March 2018 as part of a plan to cover high-speed satellite internet coverage around the globe. of the company that specializes in producing American rockets.
SpaceX has now launched 180 of them, and plans to launch several more, each two weeks apart, throughout 2020 – that by the end of this year, the total number of missiles launched will reach the number 1,400. The company hopes to complete the entire Starlink project by 2027. By that time, its network will likely include up to 42,000 satellites – nearly 20 times the number of satellites currently operating in orbit. now on.
But according to Ramon Ryan, a second-year law student at Vanderbilt University, the FCC may have violated a federal environmental law when licensing the SpaceX project. Two legal experts agree with this statement, while the FCC – of course – denies.
It is known that documents on this issue by Ryan will be published later this year in the magazine Vanderbilt Entertainment and Technology Law. He shared the download with several other newspapers, including Business Insider.
“The FCC has opened up the possibility of being sued “- Ryan said.
FCC approves SpaceX for launching satellites without environmental impact assessment
An astronomer in the Netherlands captured the Starlink satellite scene after being launched
Ryan said he started researching the details of the FCC’s Starlink approval project after reading the news that the Starlink satellite launches had made it difficult for telescopes to be observed. astronomy.
“If there are lots of bright objects moving in the sky, our work will become extremely complex “- astronomer James Lowenthal said. “It has the potential to threaten astronomy. “
Ryan wants to find out if astronomers can pursue any legal action against the FCC.
In his paper, Ryan mentions the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), introduced into law in 1970. This law requires federal agencies to study the environmental impacts of activities that they conduct before taking any action.
But some agencies are licensed to “waive” certain activities and basic work that do not affect the environment – activities such as processing wages, collecting data, or setting up Security systems at the office.
In the case of the FCC, the “waiver” applies to most of the agency’s work, including the activities of the third party it has approved.
“There are other agencies that use immunities, but I don’t think there is one that has broad immunity like this one “- Kevin Bell, a counselor at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said.
The FCC must only conduct an environmental assessment under the NEPA Act for projects that create “Intense light“, expose people to unsafe radio frequency radiation levels, or to have construction works on protected land.
“It was a policy outlined for another era before the massive space exploration “- Bell added.
The first launch consisted of 60 Starlink high-speed internet satellites, each weighing 500 pounds, mounted on the Falcon 9.
In the FCC application, SpaceX responded “Is not” to the question of whether the project will “have a significant impact on the environment. ” This means that no one has conducted a NEPA assessment of the impact of Starlink satellites on the environment.
Does the FCC violate NEPA?
Ryan said that without conducting research, the FCC could not confirm whether projects like Starlink had a significant impact on the environment. This means they can violate NEPA by applying immunity to these projects.
“I think people can make arguments based on NEPA. The beauty of the night sky, and for astronomers, is the ability to conduct scientific studies by observing the night sky, the two effects specified in the law. So there could be a lawsuit happening “- Bell said.
Illustration of StarX’s Spacelink internet satellite cluster in orbit around Earth
In many past lawsuits, the court has ruled against government agencies applying exemptions to activities for which they have not yet analyzed the consequences for the environment.
“That is the ultimate goal of this lawsuit, ending the broad scope of FCC exemptions and forcing them to review it on a case by case basis “- Ryan said.
If someone wants to file a lawsuit against FCC regarding this matter, the judge may suspend future Starlink launches.
But the FCC doesn’t think Ryan’s argument will change everything.
“We object to this hypothesis “- an FCC spokesman said. The person added that the agency already knew “.concerns emerge around the consequences of the Starlink satellites on astronomers’ observations, ” but they say “This issue has not been discussed at later FCC meetings. “
Super-massive clusters of super bright satellites can obscure stars
Astronomers’ worst fear of Starlink is that this super-bright super cluster of satellites can completely obscure stars, making it impossible for researchers to observe the universe from Earth.
“The new superarchitecture is about 99% brighter than anything else on Earth’s orbit, and that’s when concerns arise “- Patrick Seitzer, an astronomer at the University of Michigan, says.
SpaceX has pledged to find ways to reduce the impact of Starlink satellites on astronomy. During the launch on January 6, the company had a satellite that tested paint that was black to make it less reflective and less bright in the night sky.
Other companies, including OneWeb, Amazon, and Telesat, have similar plans to launch clusters of hundreds of satellites. Some companies, like OneWeb, have “got along” with astronomers when they say they want to make sure the satellites aren’t too bright. Meanwhile, Telesat says it will launch satellites into orbit high enough to make them emit weaker light in the sky.
Ryan said that because the FCC has not yet studied the environmental impacts of satellite clusters, it will be very difficult to defend its claim that they have no significant consequences in court.
“If the work of astronomers is affected, if it prevents them from doing their work, then at least they will stand up to take it to federal court “- Sarah Bordelon, an environmental lawyer at Holland & Hart, said.
Ryan also thinks there is an argument that can be made to confirm that the Starlink project has caused environmental damage in terms of landscape – something NEPA specifically protects.
“The public has the right to look at the sky and not witness the 6,000 flickering satellites “- I said.
Each threat is related to mercury fuel
A ULA Atlas V rocket carrying satellites to the US Navy creates a light trail when it takes off on January 20, 2015
Rryan also mentioned another environmental issue, though people still haven’t realized: mercury fuel.
According to him, when the satellite industry is booming, companies must consider using this type of fuel because it is cheap, efficient, and has better performance than other types (such as xenon or krypton). But mercury is a neurotoxin that can harm the human nervous system, kidneys, lungs, and immune system, as well as destroy or harm wildlife. For example, a startup on Apollo Fusion is designing satellite propulsion systems that use mercury as a fuel in November 2018.
NASA tested using hydrogens as rocket fuel in the 1960s and early 1970s, but stopped because of environmental concerns and exposure risks to ground technicians.
However, NASA is not granted an exemption from NEPA.
After Bell learned about the plan of Apollo Fusion, he submitted a complaint to the FCC by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, arguing that mercury-based satellites could easily pass the evaluation process of Bell. FCC.
In the complaint, he calculated that a satellite cluster running entirely on mercury fuel could release 200 tons of toxic material into the atmosphere.
“These can be launched without anyone realizing the consequences “- Ryan said. “This is probably a more legitimate reason for court intervention. “