Opinion: Elon Musk’s SpaceX is seizing power in space with satellites

OPINION:

If you have spotted mysterious objects in the sky recently, you are not alone. Reports of unidentified flying objects in the US increased by 1,000 last year, although many of those UFOs turned out to have been aircraft, drones and satellites. There are a lot of the latter floating around.

Elon Musk added even more this week, with the launch of a further 60 Starlink communications satellites aboard one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets. He now has 1,400 satellites aloft to provide broadband internet access in places where it is scarce, and he shows no signs of slowing down.

A new space race is under way, not far above our heads. Musk has taken the lead in constellations of small satellites but he is being chased by Amazon among others. OneWeb, which the UK government helped to rescue from bankruptcy last year, this week gained a US$550 million ($758.5m) investment from Eutelsat and plans to have 648 internet satellites in low-earth orbit.

Who runs this show? Governments ruled the skies in the days of Sputnik and the Apollo missions, but the closest thing to a space dictator these days is Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla. Starlink’s terms of service say it falls under California law but that if it extends its reach to Mars “no Earth-based government has authority or sovereignty over Martian activities”.

This sounds like a joke, but Musk’s jokes have a habit of coming true. Nasa now depends on him heavily: SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted astronauts to the International Space Station last week and Nasa plans to use its Starship landing craft to return humans to the moon by 2025, more than half a century after the last Apollo landing mission.

The commercial rush to stake out territory in space is taking place at far lower altitudes, and in considerably higher quantities. The Federal Communications Commission this week gave SpaceX permission to fly 4,400 Starlink satellites about 550km above the Earth, compared with the 36,000km of stationary orbit satellites.

Amazon has authority to place 3,200 of its Kuiper satellites in orbit just above those of SpaceX, and the latter applied last year for approval for full constellation of 42,000, although it might be ambitious even for Musk. At this rate, there will not be much orbital space left without a satellite in it.

The balance of space power has tilted from countries to companies. Euroconsult estimates that 1,250 satellites will be launched annually this decade, 70 per cent of them for commercial purposes. The US Department of Defense has even turned to Musk for its own missile-tracking, low-earth orbit satellites, giving SpaceX a US$149m contract to build four, with more to follow.

Musk offers value for money as well as entertainment value. Having built a rocket that is reusable, with one stage lowering itself back on to a landing craft after every outing, SpaceX has pushed down its costs. There have now been 114 Falcon 9 launches and you can book one for US$62m, which seems a bargain for a space rocket.

But that leaves SpaceX and other private sector operators at the controls of orbital space. The vision of outer space exploration and of humans living on colonies on Mars is useful for stoking excitement, but much of the commercial action is taking place a fraction of the distance away.

This includes low-orbit space jaunts, which Virgin Galactic is now hoping to offer to its first customers next year, and broadband internet access. Low-earth orbit satellites can provide faster broadband, with lower latency, than existing services that beam their signals from further out.

It could be good for humanity: 70 per cent of households in low income countries are not reached by fixed broadband, according to Boston Consulting Group, and internet access can be patchy even across swaths of the US. But satellite constellations also bring their own problems.

One is that they can sometimes be seen in the night sky, especially just before dawn and after dusk. That multiplies UFO sightings and causes difficulties for astronomers as satellites reflect sunlight to earth, leaving streaks across images. SpaceX has been trying to remedy this by putting visors on satellites and changing their angles, but they cannot be made invisible.

A second is clutter. There is a huge amount of space junk after decades of activity — 930,000 objects larger than 1cm in diameter are already in orbit, with the potential to damage spacecraft. SpaceX says Starlink satellites will fall from orbit and burn up after use, but the sheer volume of new satellites makes the risk of accidents uncomfortably high.

Whatever the dangers, Musk and fellow entrepreneurs are heading beyond the power of nations to restrain them. Satellite and spectrum licences are given by bodies such as the FCC and the International Telecommunication Union, but the US government has a stake in SpaceX being successful enough to support its own missions.

It is not a secret that Musk intends to boldly go where no regulator can reach him. Gaze up into the night sky and you may see evidence that his plan to conquer space is working.

Written by: John Gapper

© Financial Times

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