ViaSat Files Environmental Challenge Against Starlink Internet Satellites

ViaSat has filed a challenge of Starlink’s Internet satellite constellation with the U.S. Federal Commerce Commission, claiming that the satellites will contribute to the “space junk” problem.

Starwatchers have already claimed that the constellation is already interfering with viewing conditions. Close to 900 of the planned constellation of up to 42,000 satellites have already been launched and starwatchers say that they can sometimes see strings of them moving across the sky.

Some of these satellites may have already malfunctioned, becoming “dead” satellites, in an environment where it is difficult to simply send a repair crew. While some important, usually government-owned hardware such as the iconic Hubble Space Telescope have been repaired and maintained by crewed missions, none of these missions have occurred since NASA’s Space Shuttle program was retired.

This adds to the debris in space that can collide with active satellites and space-based, crewed assets. At speeds that can top 17,000 miles per hour, these collisions can cause a significant amount of damage. The International Space Station has occasionally had to maneuver to avoid collisions with old rocket stages and dead satellites.

(Yes, collisions in space was a major plot element of the movie “Gravity,” in which a scientist became the only survivor of a space shuttle mission that was destroyed by space debris. No, that was not a realistic depiction of the orbital mechanics involved.)

There have been some proposals to “de-orbit” dead satellites, including Elon Musk’s own plan to use the Starship rocket to capture orbital debris. A company called D-Orbit have also proposed equipping satellites with a “retro-rocket” reentry pack that can operate independently of the satellite and slow it down enough for it to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere when its useful life is over.

In 2017, D-Orbit did fly a demo of its reentry system with a CubeSat that flew as a secondary payload on an Indian rocket in 2017. The demonstration was reportedly a success. However, there is very little information on whether this technology will be widely adopted by companies interested in sending satellites into orbit.

Elon Musk was dismissive of the environmental complaint, saying that ViaSat is more concerned by the possibility of competition than by environmental concerns. ViaSat is also interested in operating its own constellation of Internet satellites.

Will ViaSat’s complaint succeed? The FCC has expressed little concern about the thousands of satellites, including many dead ones, that are already in orbit. It may be more interested in merely making sure that the appropriate paperwork is correctly filled out. ViaSat spokesman John Janka did seem to dodge the issue of why it singled out SpaceX and Starlink in particular. He said only:

“There has been strong concerns raised among a wide number of players in the industry this summer about the satellite’s orbital debris, space safety and interference issues. … It is not just SpaceX, these concerns are about mega constellations in general – anyone proposing to send thousands and tens of thousands of satellites into orbit.”

Which may lend credence to Musk’s complaint that ViaSat is more worried about the competition than it is about the space debris problem. Either way, it may be little more than another regulatory bump in the road for SpaceX and Starlink.