In a new report, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) is asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reevaluate how large constellations of satellites are regulated and approved for launch.
GAO’s analysis, released on Wednesday, comes amid an ever-increasing number of satellites orbiting Earth—with new objects being sent to space at least weekly. The U.S. is responsible for the largest single share of those launches.
“By 2030, tens of thousands of commercial satellites are expected to join the thousands of satellites already in orbit,” wrote the assessment authors. “Scientists and others have raised concerns about the potential environmental and other effects of large quantities of satellites.”
As more satellites are launched and accumulate in orbit, more can go wrong, the GAO pointed out. For instance, damaging collisions become increasingly likely with each additional object added to the collection already circulating Earth. Research is starting to suggest that the cumulative emissions from all those launches could be shifting the composition of our atmosphere—particularly at upper levels. Large groups of satellites orbiting together, as with SpaceX’s Starlink, pose a risk of interfering with astronomical observations and radio transmissions on Earth. And there’s a very small, but non-zero, chance of debris from satellites falling out of orbit damaging property or hurting people.
Each of these impacts is studied or assessed by at least one government agency, according to the GAO’s report—but there’s limited coordination, and no agency is considering all of the categories together. One way to ensure thorough, centralized environmental review would be through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). However satellite launches, even large constellation projects, are currently exempt from that process. The exemption dates back to 1986—before large constellations of satellites existed—and the FCC hasn’t adequately explained why, according to the watchdog agency.
“FCC officials told us that they are always considering whether the categorical exclusion is current and appropriate and that they have a process in place for interested parties to raise concerns,” wrote the GAO authors. “However, FCC officials were not able to provide documentation demonstrating that they specifically looked at the categorical exclusion as it applies to licensing large constellation of satellites.”
Thus, the GAO recommends that the FCC newly evaluate all of the environmental impacts of satellite constellations, re-visit whether or not they should be covered under NEPA, and make all of their findings public.
“Given that federal agencies are conducting research and learning more about potential environmental effects of large constellations of satellites, it is important for FCC to consider this information in its decision-making going forward,” wrote the GAO.
And the FCC has agreed to comply. The agency wrote that it is “committed to ensuring that its actions, including satellite licensing activities are in complianve with the requirements of [NEPA],” in a letter responding to the GAO report.
Independently from GAO oversight, the Commission has expressed its own desire for more satellite regulation. Just this week, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced a plan to launch a dedicated Space Bureau through which the communications agency could streamline satellite licensing and restrictions. And in September, the agency issued a draft order that would require satellites to come back down to Earth within five years of mission completion (instead of 25), in an effort to minimize the amount of space trash zipping through low Earth orbit.
And hopefully, between all of these new considerations, Earth’s upper atmosphere and low orbit zone will become a cleaner, greener space in space for all.