People have a right to see the heavens unimpeded. With the recent rise of satellite mega constellations, it is being asked again and again, even though it was considered nonsensical for most of human history. There are thousands of mega constellations that could spark a multitrillion dollar orbital industry. The rise of mega constellations threatens to cause space debris that harms people on Earth and in space alike, as well as causing the night sky to be cluttered.

In January 2020 Scientific American was the first to report on a paper that argued that environmental legislation enacted more than a half-century ago may be illegal. The GAO was commissioned by Congress to look at the evidence for the claims. The report shows the high-stakes international debate over satellites' impacts on the night sky has only just begun. Although confined to the U.S., these decisions will have far-reaching ramifications around the world and dictate whether companies can operate in the US if their satellites harm the night sky.

The University of Cambridge has an astronomer who says that our society needs a bit of space. Commercial use of space is not a problem for me. There is a problem that it is out of control. I was surprised that there were no regulations when satellites increased. I was very happy to hear that it can't continue like that.

The launch of the first 60 satellites in the Starlink constellation was the beginning of the mega constellation era. To beam high-speed broadband Internet to all corners of the globe, Starlink builds and maintains a network of more than 12,000 communications satellites. The Starlink satellites were launched by the end of the year. Half of all active satellites in space are accounted for by the constellation, which has grown to more than 3000. Astronomers and members of the public were alarmed by the rapid rise of these satellites, all of which can be very bright in the sky when illuminated by sunlight. Satellites that pass overhead can be a nuisance for casual sky watchers. They are on the verge of becoming an essentially unmitigated disaster, regularly photobombing the delicate observations of facilities on the ground. Radio communications from these satellites can make it difficult for radio astronomy instruments to listen in on the distant universe.

The regulatory approval of these satellites by the FCC may be in violation of the NEPA. The natural aesthetic of the night sky and the profession of astronomy may be protected under NEPA, but the FCC has so far sidestepped NEPA's oversight, thanks to a "categorical exclusion" granted in 1986 A congressional staffer gave Ryan's paper to a senator. The GAO was asked to determine if the FCC's categorical exclusion was still valid by the two senators. The GAO was asked to weigh in on whether the FCC should be allowed to license so many satellites.

On November 2, the results of this report were published. The FCC should revisit its categorical exclusion from NEPA and consider updating its procedures in light of the rise of mega constellations according to the GAO. Andrew Von Ah is a director at the GAO and one of the authors of the report. Von Ah says that the White House Council on Environmental Quality recommends that agencies visit categorical exclusions once every seven years. The FCC hasn't done that in a long time.

The FCC should review whether mega constellations affect the environment, revisit its categorical exclusion from NEPA, and codify what "extraordinary circumstances" would lead to NEPA review, according to the report. The FCC has not examined its categorical exclusion to make sure it is current and appropriate. The FCC has stated it would carry out a NEPA review in the case of extraordinary circumstances, but the agency's regulations don't list additional factors to explain what may constitute an extraordinary circumstance It's not clear if NEPA applies to the environment of outer space. Von Ah said this was the question. We didn't say if it does or does not. The FCC's process for making those determinations was the focus.

Von Ah says the report takes more than a year to complete and incorporates representative views of industry, astronomy and the FCC itself. He says it was a new topic for the group. The report was the first time that a technology assessment on satellite constellations has been done. There are a number of concerns about the satellites, not just their brightness, but also the collision risk they pose in space, the interference to radio astronomy caused by satellite radio transmissions, and even the potential for satellites reentering the atmosphere. Howard says that they expect a dramatic increase in the number of satellites that has the potential to create a lot of challenges for optical astronomy. It might make it difficult to do certain studies.

Scientific American requested a comment from the FCC. In a written response to the GAO included in the latter's report, it stated that it was committed to ensuring that its actions, including satellite licensing activities are in compliance with the requirements of the EPA. The White House was revising rules on NEPA regulations for federal agencies and had told agencies to update their procedures by September 23, 2023. The FCC said in its response to the GAO that it expects to conduct a review of its NEPA rules after the issuance of the revisedCEQ rules. As part of the assessment, the FCC is expected to consider establishing a time period and process for periodic review of our existing categorical exclusion.

The FCC created a new bureau for its space activities the day after the GAO report came out, which will allow the agency to handle applications for 64,000 new satellites it is considering. The new space age has changed everything we know about how to deliver critical space-based services. The agency's organizational structures have not kept up with the applications and proceedings that have gone on for a long time. You can't just keep doing the same things and expect to be the leader of the new.

There are a number of bills currently making their way through congress that seek to further regulate the impact of mega constellations on the sky. She says that this is the first step in the long march to finding a policy that works for everyone. It is very complicated. She says that the change in leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives is all the more reason. It's likely that the legislative gridlock will make policy difficult.

You can sign up for Scientific American's newsletters.

For astronomy, the threat of mega constellations may be greatest for wide, deep surveys of the sky, such as those planned for the Vera C. Rubin Observatory. Dark matter and dark energy are some of the high priority investigations for the Legacy Survey of Space and Time. According to Tony Tyson of the University of California, Davis, if the number of satellites goes up to 50,000, there will be a satellite trail in 10% of the images. Light pollution from satellites might make certain investigations impossible. Tracking fast- moving objects such as potentially hazardous near- Earth asteroids is easy to compromise by bogus alert from satellites. This is going to be a big problem for some science. BlueWalker 3, a recently launched (and extremely bright) satellite from the Texas firmAST SpaceMobile, caused alarm. BlueWalker 3 is so bright because it has a 700 square foot deployable antenna. Blue Birds could be twice as big and even brighter. The FCC has yet to license these satellites, which are believed to be better than all other satellites in the sky.

It could take months or even years for the FCC to determine if its licensing of satellites warrants NEPA review. The FCC might only conduct NEPA reviews for upcoming constellations. Thousands of satellites are planned to launch in the coming years, not just from SpaceX but also from rival services such as Amazon. Time is the most important thing. There is a battle for the night sky.