It must have looked like a scene from a science fiction movie when people in the United States started noticing a string of lights moving across the skies last May. Viewers from Texas to Wisconsin called up media outlets, reporting the unusual sight and wondering if it was some kind of a UFO attack.
But the experts put to rest all UFO theories and explained the lights were a series of satellites sent up by SpaceX, the space exploration firm founded by Elon Musk.
It was another glimpse of the trail blazing ways of Musk, whose Midas touch has been reshaping the auto industry and crypto currency world, not to speak his foray into Artificial Intelligence research.
While other tycoons like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Virgin Airlines chief Richard Branson talk about tourism and factories in space, Musk dreams of a colony in Mars. So it is natural that he had occupied a pole position by launching a series of satellites for his Starlink broadband plan.
This satellite-based universal broadband plan has attracted many companies into the field as analyst see a surge in demand as technologies like driver-less cars, internet-controlled gadgets and tele-medicine are poised to take off.
The cost of setting up networks in rural areas remains unattractive as the returns remain low. The difficult terrain in some areas add to the problems. The idea of providing internet coverage through satellite was mooted before too, but the prohibitive cost prevented it. But changes in technology have made it an attainable goal.
SpaceX, a Musk enterprise, already has hundreds of satellites positioned above the Earth, for its Starlink broadband network, which people in 12 countries have started accessing, with most reporting out-of-the-world speeds. (No pun intended.)
It is not just Starlink that is eyeing this vast opportunity. Amazon’s Kuiper and UK government’s One Web project are among others looking to enter the global market with similar services. China, meanwhile, has a plan for a 12,000-satellite constellation for its own broadband services.
With tens of thousands of satellites in the pipeline and non-state actors getting into the act, things are getting a bit complicated. Half a century ago, the United States and the Soviet Union had agreed to conduct space experiments for the collective good of humanity, which was later endorsed by over 100 countries.
But a lot has changed since then and there are many nations which have flagged their space ambitions and capability. So negotiations about a common rule regarding future space exploitation is going to be time consuming and complicated.
The arrival of internet added a different dimension as communication satellites also become a core area of defence with remote controlled weapons and drones making their appearance. The US, Russia, China, and India have demonstrated their ability to destroy satellites and that technology could become a crucial weapon in future warfare.
Even the experimental blowing up satellites by these countries had alarmed the space scientists as these manoeuvres left thousands of pieces of debris floating in the sky, which could someday pose a threat to the satellites and life on Earth.
A possible attack on a country’s satellite also brings another problem: about how to retaliate. The US-based website, Defenseone.com reported recently that a top official of the newly created Space Force warned, a strike on US assets could spark a conflict across the land, air, sea, and cyber domains.
“You don’t always need to respond to a space activity with an equal space element. You could leverage any one of the other domains or any one of the other tools,” said Brigadier General John Olson. “It really depends, but I will certainly say that the United States...will respond in a proportional manner at a time and place of our choosing.”
But who decides what is proportional and what is not?
It is into this mix that Musk and his fellow billionaires are wading in. The Tesla chief was welcomed with red carpet by Beijing when he started production of his cars in China. But when it came to space affairs, their tone was different.
In December, China complained to the United Nations that SpaceX satellites are posing threats to its Tiangong space station and twice it had to take evasive action to avoid collision with SpaceX satellites. Beijing also accused the United States of failing to carry out its obligations to “protect the safety of astronauts” under the 1967 treaty.
While the 1967 agreement is something that nations could follow when they haggle over space matters, rules to govern private companies operating in space is a grey area. Even an accidental collision could spark off suspicions of malice and provoke retaliations if governments are held responsible for the incident caused by a private firm.
Even without such conflicts, the expected launch of thousands of satellites in the coming decade could lead to unprecedented problems in space, which is already littered with junk and dead satellites. Threats of collisions and damages to satellites are increasing sharply while the environmental impact of the crowded orbit above us is an unknown.
Earth orbit is a natural resource without environmental protections; we are now witnessing its industrialization, the US-based Science magazine said in a recent editorial.
Even the launch of the first few hundred satellites by SpaceX has led to problems. Professional and amateur astronomers complained that these bright satellites streaming across the sky were complicating their studies of celestial bodies and SpaceX then modified the satellites using less reflective material.
The use of radio bandwidth by these satellites are also interfering with some space-exploring antennas.
The pace at which Musk’s firm is going ahead is leading to complaints from other quarters too. The head of the European Space Agency, Josef Aschbacher, charged Musk with aiming to dominate the new space economy, warning that the lack of coordinated action meant the US billionaire was “making the rules” himself.
The Tesla chief was never the one to get bogged down by such charges. He dismisses such allegations with his usual disdain, saying the space is vast and there is room for everyone.
But it is not the lack of room that worries some analysts. What they see as a future problem is the lack of a consensus about activities in space that actually belongs to everyone on this planet.
If and when Musk sets up a colony in Mars or Bezos sets up a factory in space or Branson flies tourists to the edge of the atmosphere, whose rule will apply up there and what rights and protections do the employees – who will depend on their employers even for oxygen – can expect to receive.
These complications might look like something that is at a far away horizon right now. But the high velocity at which things move in outer space may bring those distant problems close to us well before we are ready.