Profs. Tell DC Circ. SpaceX Launches Need Enviro Review

Nadia Dreid, Law360, Aug 17, 2021

Law360 (August 17, 2021, 7:13 PM EDT) — The Federal Communications Commission made a mistake when it gave SpaceXpermission to launch thousands of broadband satellites from its Starlink fleet closer to Earth than originally planned without also ordering an environmental review, a group of astronomy professors told the D.C. Circuit.

The number of satellites in low Earth orbit is already making it difficult for astronomers to do their job, and the work is only going to get harder if the FCC continues to allow companies like Elon Musk-linked SpaceX to launch objects into the sky without considering the effect on the environment, the celestial experts argued.

University of Edinburgh astronomy professor Andy Lawrence filed the amicus brief Friday, bringing his two cents to the consolidated set of appeals before the D.C. Circuit, all challenging the FCC’s decision to bless the Starlink launch in a lower orbit. The brief, according to Lawrence, was coordinated with several colleagues at various American institutions.

“Humans have interacted with the night sky for thousands of years,” the brief said. “Only recently, however, have humans begun launching objects into near Earth orbital space. Professor Lawrence is (and the other astronomers are) interested in this case because the commission’s order underlying it has significant potential consequences for astronomy and humans’ access to the sky.”

Right now there are more than 4,500 active satellites in what Lawrence calls near-Earth orbital space, but within a decade the professor says that number could grow to 100,000.

“In this case, the Federal Communications Commission had a chance to review whether these novel, massive satellite launches ‘may’ have significant impacts on the human environment, but the Commission looked the other way,” the professor said.

Light pollution is the astronomers’ main concern. Light from the satellites makes the sky brighter overall, making it more difficult for experts to see celestial bodies, and satellites can also block the view of other bodies outright due to their placement, according to the professors.

But radio emissions from the satellites is something to be worried about too, the professors said, because they can “similarly interfere with radio astronomers’ ability to capture faint radio signals.”

“Given the rapid growth and projected continued growth of the space object population, the Commission must consider not just the present effects of a particular proposed deployment, but the cumulative effect that it and projected future deployments may have,” the astronomers said.

At the center of the appeal is the FCC’s April 27 order giving SpaceX the go-ahead to bring the rest of its Starlink broadband fleet closer to Earth. It did that by updating certain technical specifications that SpaceX says will allow it to provide better service to rural and polar areas, though SpaceX rivals were not in favor of the plan.

The agency ultimately decided that it was in the best interest of the public to approve the plan, but now the matter has ended up before the D.C. Circuit, which declined last month to stay the FCC’s decision while it mulls the matter.

Andy Lawrence is represented by Jean-Claude André of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP.

SpaceX is represented by Pratik Arvind Shah and Ze-wen Julius Chen of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP.

The FCC is represented in-house by Jacob M. Lewis and Rachel Proctor May.

The lead case is Viasat Inc. v. FCC, case number 21-1123, in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

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