The commercial rush to establish a territory in space takes place at much lower elevations and in considerably higher quantities. The Federal Communications Commission last week authorized SpaceX to fly 4,400 Starlink satellites about 550 kilometers above Earth, compared to 36,000 kilometers of stationary orbiting satellites.
Amazon has the power to put 3,200 of its Kuiper satellites into orbit just above those of SpaceX, and SpaceX sought approval for a full constellation of 42,000 last year, though that could be ambitious even for Musk. At this rate, there won’t be much orbital space left without a satellite.
The balance of space power has shifted from countries to companies. Euroconsult estimates that 1,250 satellites will be launched each year this decade, 70% of which for commercial purposes. The US Department of Defense has even turned to Musk for its own low-earth orbit missile tracking satellites, giving SpaceX a $ 149 million contract to build four, with more to follow.
Musk offers good value for money as well as entertainment value. After building a reusable rocket, with a stage folding back onto a landing craft after each sortie, SpaceX cut costs. There have now been 114 Falcon 9 launches and you can book one for $ 62 million, which seems like a good deal for a space rocket.
But that leaves SpaceX and other private sector operators in command of orbital space. The sight of exploring outer space and humans living in colonies on Mars is helpful in stoking excitement, but much of the business action takes place at a fraction of the distance.
This includes getaways into the suborbital space, which Virgin Galactic now hopes to offer its first customers next year, and high-speed internet access. Satellites in low Earth orbit can provide faster broadband, with lower latency, than existing services that transmit their signals from further afield.
It could be good for humanity: 70% of households in low-income countries are not reached by fixed broadband, according to the Boston Consulting Group, and internet access can be spotty even in parts of the states -United. But satellite constellations also pose their own problems.
The first is that they can sometimes be seen in the night sky, especially just before dawn and after dusk. This increases the number of UFO sightings and causes difficulties for astronomers as the satellites reflect sunlight back to Earth, leaving streaks in the images. SpaceX has tried to remedy this by putting visors on the satellites and changing their angles, but they cannot be made invisible.
A second is disorder. There is a huge amount of space waste after decades of activity – 930,000 objects larger than one centimeter in diameter are already in orbit, with the potential to damage spacecraft. SpaceX says the Starlink satellites will fall out of orbit and burn out after use, but the sheer volume of new satellites makes the risk of a crash uncomfortably high.
Whatever the dangers, Musk and his fellow entrepreneurs go beyond the power of nations to contain them. Satellite and spectrum licenses are granted by bodies like the FCC and the International Telecommunications Union, but the US government has an interest in SpaceX being successful enough to support its own missions.
It’s no secret that Musk intends to boldly go where no regulator can reach him. Look up into the night sky and you might see that his space conquest plan is working.