By: David A. Koplow
PDF: Blinded by the Light
The sudden emergence of large constellations of small satellites in low altitude orbits represents one of the most dramatic contemporary innovations in outer space. Promising low-cost, low-latency global communications and spectacular capacities for remote sensing of the
Earth, these satellites will soon number in the tens of thousands, sponsored by diverse corporations and countries around the world. But this proliferation of spacecraft comes at a steep cost in unavoidable interference with ground-based astronomy: as the satellites overfly the observatories, they block the views of remote objects and phenomena, leaving obliterating white streaks on the collected imagery, and obscuring access to troves of vital data from distant sources of cosmic light and radio waves.
To date, the world has been proceeding on the implicit assumption that the law of outer space essentially licenses the satellite operators to proceed however they wish in this matter, with little required consideration for the losses inflicted upon astronomy and the myriad
scientific missions. There have been some modest, voluntary efforts at mitigation of the interference effects, but nothing sufficient or reliable has been effectuated.
This Article describes the incipient clash between satellite megaconstellations and astronomy, assesses the relevant international and domestic legal authorities, and proposes compromise solutions to mitigate the damage. Overall, the thesis is that a better balance— meaningfully informed by the Outer Space Treaty—must be struck between these competing types of space activities, without ceding to either a comprehensive right to proceed in disregard of the key functions of the other.