The head of the European Space Agency has called on the continent’s leaders to stop facilitating Elon Musk’s ambition to dominate the new space economy, warning that the lack of coordinated action means that the US billionaire himself “makes” the rules.
Josef Aschbacher, the new Director-General of ESA, said that Europe’s readiness to help the rapid expansion of Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service runs the risk of hindering the region’s own companies from exploiting the potential of commercial space. realize.
“Space will be much more restrictive [in terms of] frequencies and orbital slots, ”he said in an interview with the Financial Times. “The governments of Europe should have a common interest in. . . gives European suppliers equal opportunities to play in a fair market. ”
Germany recently applied to the International Telecommunication Union, which coordinates the use of wireless frequencies for data transmission, to allow Starlink spectrum for about 40,000 satellites. Musk has already received approval for more than 30,000 satellites from US regulators.
Musk said earlier this year that SpaceX, its private rocket company, is willing to spend up to $ 30 billion to expand Starlink.
Aschbacher said Musk’s Starlink was already so large that it was difficult for regulators or competitors to catch up. “You have one person who owns half of the active satellites in the world. That’s pretty amazing. De facto he makes the rules. The rest of the world including Europe. . . just does not respond quickly enough. ”
Starlink and the UK-backed OneWeb are leading a rush to create mega-constellations of hundreds and even thousands of satellites in a low-Earth orbit, or LEO, to provide broadband to hard-to-reach places by cable.
The Chinese government and Amazon’s Project Kuiper both plan to unveil their own LEO constellations.
A new generation of space companies, driven by declining launch costs and cheaper satellites, also aims to provide LEO commercial services such as Earth observation.
The rush to exploit the potential of commercial space – made possible by declining launch costs and cheaper, smaller satellites – has raised concerns about the absence of a low-orbit global space traffic management system, an area of up to 2,000 km above sea level the earth where most new commercial services are targeted.
Last year, the Satellite Industry Association estimated by 2029, there could be more than 100,000 commercial spacecraft in orbit.
Aschbacher’s concerns were reflected by Franz Fayot, Luxembourg’s economy minister, who said new rules were needed to ensure the safe use of space.
“You have people like Elon Musk, who just launch constellations and satellites and throw Teslas into orbit. We need to set common rules. “Colonization, or just doing things in a completely deregulated space, is a concern,” he said on the sidelines of the New Space Conference in Luxembourg.
Starlink did not respond to a request for comment.
Europe’s satellite sector is dominated by traditional operators who rely on a very small number of expensive, high orbit satellites to provide services such as television broadcasting.
Although the ITU coordinates radio frequencies, there is no overarching international authority or regulator that controls the launch of satellites. One fear is that as orbits become overcrowded, there is a growing risk of collisions that could generate catastrophic amounts of debris. Space junk is already a significant danger.
Steve Collar, chief executive of satellite operator SES, said the industry was “heading for a situation where there would be far too many satellites deployed. Lots of these plans. . . is in direct response to the fact that no one is properly regulating. ” Luxembourg owns a third of SES voting rights.
Musk, in particular, has come under fire from astronomers and competitors for the pace of its expansion. Earlier this year, its SpaceX rocket company launched more than 100 satellites each month, with nearly 2,000 currently in a low orbit around the earth.
Astronomers are concerned that large numbers of satellites will interfere with terrestrial telescopes and “affect the appearance of the night sky for astronomers worldwide”, according to a report by the American Astronomical Society.
Ralph Dinsley, founder of NORSS, which monitors objects in space, said the fact that Musk manufactured his own satellites and could launch them with his SpaceX rocket company meant he could move faster than competitors to occupy the most desirable orbiting planes. . “At the speed he puts it in an orbit, he almost owns those orbits, because no one can get in there. He creates a Musk sovereignty in space. ”
Aschbacher said it was clear that U.S. regulators, as part of a national government, “are interested in not only developing the economy, but also certain domination of certain economic sectors. This is happening. . . very, very, very, very clear. And very strong. ”