Mon. Dec 4th, 2023
The Growing Issue of Satellite Filings and Orbital Congestion

In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of satellite filings made by nations around the world. From large corporations like SpaceX to smaller companies and government agencies, filings for over one million satellites have been made across more than 300 satellite systems. This raises concerns about the environmental impact and orbital congestion that could result from the launch of these satellites.

Currently, there are only around 8,000 active satellites in orbit. If even a small percentage of the filed-for satellites are launched, it could lead to a crowded low Earth orbit with over 100,000 additional satellites. This would increase the risk of collisions, which would generate space debris that could pose a threat to other satellites, as well as to people and aircraft on Earth. The reentry of satellites into the atmosphere could also potentially affect the climate.

There are indications that some satellite operators may be inflating their filings, either to attract investors or to secure portions of radio spectrum for profit. This raises questions about the validity of the filed numbers. Some companies, like E-Space, have made ambitious filings for hundreds of thousands of satellites, but their executives have mentioned much smaller numbers in their plans.

Furthermore, there are concerns that companies are exploiting different administrative rules and fees associated with satellite filings in various countries. This can be compared to the concept of “flag-of-convenience” in the shipping industry, where ships are registered in countries with looser regulations and lower operating costs. Companies like OneWeb and SpaceX have made filings through multiple countries, potentially taking advantage of different rules and fees.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the United Nations agency responsible for coordinating radiofrequency spectrum, plays a crucial role in regulating satellite filings. However, the process for updating rules can be slow, with conferences held every few years to discuss and adopt new regulations. The ITU should consider expediting this process and introducing fees that discourage excessive or speculative filings.

As the number of satellite filings continues to rise, it is essential to prioritize space sustainability and address the challenges of orbital congestion. The ITU, satellite operators, and nations need to work together to ensure responsible and sustainable satellite deployments that minimize the risks posed by orbital debris and collisions.