Technology

With alarming amounts of space junk already in orbit, Elon Musk’s Starlink will launch as many as 42,000 mini-satellites. These could bring improved broadband to remote Australians but at a significant environmental cost. By Laurie Patton.

What you need to know before signing up to Elon Musk’s Starlink

A string of SpaceX Starlink satellites passes over an old stone house near Florence, Kansas, in the United States.
A string of SpaceX Starlink satellites passes over an old stone house near Florence, Kansas, in the United States.
Credit: AP Photo / Reed Hoffman

A massive effort is currently under way to clean up the seas as discarded bits of plastic kill millions of fish and other marine creatures. If only we’d realised earlier the impact plastic pollution was having on our oceans, we could have done something decades ago.

So, how smart does it sound to begin filling our skies with thousands of tiny satellites? Future space junk?

Low Earth orbiting satellites – or LEOs as they are known – are being deployed in order to provide broadband to remote places around the world. They are small, relatively inexpensive, and hundreds can be launched at one time.

While most will fall out of orbit when they run out of power and burn up on re-entry, these will inevitably be replaced by new ones. Over time, tens of thousands of pieces of this potential space junk will clog the skies.

Astronomers for a start have warned of the effect LEOs will have on stargazing. And then there’s the impact LEOs will have on space tourism; a bit like dodging wildlife while driving on a country road.

Just recently, the International Space Station had to be moved to avoid a collision with a piece of space junk.

According to the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office, there are already about 7600 much larger satellites in space, yet only about 4700 of these are still active. No plans exist to retrieve these “dead birds”.

Elon Musk’s Starlink is one of a number of projects involving the mass deployment of satellites in order to provide a broadband service to people in remote areas not covered by fixed-line connections. There are varying reports, but as many as 42,000 LEOs are said to be involved in this project alone.

Fred Watson is Australia’s astronomer-at-large and an honorary professor at the University of Wollongong’s school of physics. He sees problems associated with the widespread use of LEOs as somewhere between “serious” and “extreme”. For traditional astronomy, the issue is that satellites reflect light from the sun, which affects visual sighting. For radio astronomers, satellites can interfere with the detection of electromagnetic spectrum used to identify objects in space.

Watson points out that Starlink satellites use VisorSats – a kind of sunshade – that reduce their brightness to just below naked-eye visibility. But they are still bright in telescopes, both amateur and professional. “I’m optimistic that astronomers will find ways to reduce the interference by satellite constellations – in fact that’s happening already,” he notes. Others are not so confident, but nobody is saying it will cease to be a problem altogether.

You can’t blame people for being attracted to Starlink given the well-publicised problems here in Australia with the national broadband network. Millions of NBN customers have slow and unreliable internet connections. This is largely due to the Coalition government’s decision to abandon 21st-century fibre and reuse Telstra’s old copper wires and ageing pay television cables. But from the outset people in very remote areas were always going to have their broadband delivered via satellite.

One criticism of the current model is that satellite delivery is being used to avoid the cost of more complex and difficult fixed-line connections. Some premises that would have received fibre under the original NBN plan were moved to satellite and fixed wireless after being classified as difficult builds.

The Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia (BIRRR) group raised this issue in a submission to a joint parliamentary inquiry into the NBN, stating: “We are concerned that those who truly need Sky Muster capacity for data and speed now have to share it with metropolitan addresses.”

Since then lobbying by BIRRR has seen what it says are “some great advancements”. These include moving some premises from satellite back to fibre or fixed wireless.

A spokesperson told The Saturday Paper “BIRRR is excited about new and emerging technologies such as Starlink, which can offer alternative connectivity options for some regional Australians. However, we are mindful that Starlink is not always available or affordable for many regional consumers at this point”.

Sky Muster, the satellite service that delivers the NBN to remote locations, may be better than it was, but judging by comments on the Starlink Users Australia Facebook group, it is still not winning friends in the bush.

According to a former NBN Co executive, the life of the Sky Muster satellites was expected to be 10-15 years and it was anticipated there’d be a review of the available satellite technology about seven or eight years after the initial launch. But the former executive maintains they would not have considered launching a constellation of LEOs. “I think one of the issues with Starlink will be the subscriber cost. It is very difficult to run a profitable satellite service with good performance, which means capacity not just speed. Time will tell whether Starlink will be able to get its current service costs down while maintaining performance,” he said.

“Our plan was, at the end of the main FTTP [fibre] rollout, to push FTTP further out beyond the 90-93 per cent as FTTP costs came down and in turn push fixed-wireless further out to reduce the satellite footprint.”

Several years ago one of NBN Co’s senior engineers privately confirmed his view that a third satellite would be needed to meet the increasing demands on Sky Muster. It seems that rather than three large satellites, we will end up with thousands of small ones.

Faced with a potential loss of customers and much-needed revenue, NBN Co has suggested that Starlink should pay the $7.10 a month per customer fee that other non-NBN broadband providers have been required to pay since January this year.

Writing in The Conversation, University of Southern Queensland academics Brad Carter and Mark Rigby conclude that “one way or another, we will eventually have to clean up our space neighbourhood”. However, they note that to date, we do not even have the ability to track every piece of space junk.

Like many bright new things that emerge from using emerging technologies, I doubt we can stop this mass satellite deployment. But at the very least we should be looking at introducing a comprehensive global regulatory regime, just as we have with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Australian Space Agency is a delegate to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Starlink defenders point out that the United States Federal Communications Commission has given the project its approval. But who elected America to be sheriff in space? SpaceX, Starlink’s parent company, was approached for comment, twice, but hadn’t responded by time of press.

We need to ensure that private companies placing objects in space have effective means of disposing of them as they reach their end-life. History tells us that without government intervention, some businesses will fail to do the right thing.

Researchers from Plymouth’s Marine Biological Association have noted that a significant and steady increase in ocean plastic has been obvious since 1990. But there were reports as far back as 1965 pointing to the emerging problem of plastic pollution. It took a long time before anyone thought to do something.

Thankfully there are no fish swimming in the skies.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 11, 2021 as "A sky full of junk".

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Laurie Patton is immediate past president of TelSoc and a former chief executive of Internet Australia.

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