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Using Orbital Debris Regulatory History as a Model for Expedited SLM Change

Presentation #301.02 in the session “HAD IV: iPoster-Plus Session”.

Published onJan 11, 2021
Using Orbital Debris Regulatory History as a Model for Expedited SLM Change

History, if we allow it, can serve as a guide for the future. This precept applies to more than we often consider. In the context of space, a history exists with respect to the manner in which the world addressed orbital or space debris. Over the course of nearly thirty years, national and international governmental bodies grew into regulations designed to mitigate orbital debris. This comes none too early. In fact, some argue it has come too late. Others contend substantial movement must yet occur to avoid the Kessler Syndrome and other catastrophic developments in Earth’s orbital environment. And yet, change did occur. Within the United States, the issue grew from a glancing examination to efforts by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) to impose restrictive metrics on satellites and satellite mega-constellations. In fact, the regime likely to be implemented by the time this will be presented reflects a coherent approach to the issue. As such, the current regulatory scheme provides a model by which other aspects of space may be regulated on, ideally, a shorter time scale. In the context of satellite mega-constellations and the light pollution emanating therefrom, an urgency exists even more pronounced than orbital debris. Observations, modeling, and simulations demonstrate the adverse effects on astronomy caused by satellite light pollution (“SLP”). The harm exists and, absent efforts to mitigate such effects, will only increase in severity and breadth. Indeed, in the United States, the FCC approved and licensed at least two mega-constellations. As such, there exists no governmental impediment to launch the thousands of authorized satellites. And, although certain industry actors such as SpaceX have engaged with the astronomy community to mitigate SLP, there exists no legal compulsion to do so. Consequently, the immediate need for regulatory parameters could not be more paramount. Astronomy and our dark skies simply cannot wait three decades for significant policy development. This presentation reviews the history behind efforts to address orbital debris and highlights the existing paradigm. It then applies this historical analysis to SLM by adapting the regulatory framework for orbital debris. In this manner, efforts to attain a viable regulatory regime for SLM can bypass decades of development and the deterioration of our dark skies that would otherwise occur.


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