News Release

Commercial satellite race raises calls for more regulations

As space junk falls to Earth, experts remind us of rise in low-orbit hazards

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Flinders University

Rapidly evolving technology and space debris reported in several places around the world – including pieces of a Chinese Long March 5B Rocket in the Indian Ocean – signal the need for a new era for regulation of space, Flinders University experts say.  

Their timely new report is calling on governments to pay more attention to the use of low-Earth orbit as space laws and technologies race ahead at high speed.  

Ahead of a meeting of intergovernmental experts at next year’s World Radio Conference, the space experts from the Flinders University’s Jeff Bleich Centre are raising concerns on several fronts, commencing with the takeoff of commercial interest in satellite ‘mega-constellations’ in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).  

“While there are laws that cover space activities, they are already under stress because of the speed at which the commercial space industry is evolving,” says research associate in space law Joel Lisk, from the Jeff Bleich Centre at Flinders University’s College of Business, Government and Law. 

“There is a need to work towards ensuring that we have broad and flexible regulatory settings that are geared to rapid change and future developments. 

“Without these ambitious and progressive steps, we risk reducing commercial activity, lower levels of investment – and society will miss out on the benefits that can be derived from this important sector.”  

Large corporations are moving rapidly to establish large-scale LEO deployments and provide services around the world, in what has been described as a ‘gold rush’. 

In the five years to December 2019, the number of satellites orbiting Earth increased by 77% and in the year 2020, the number increased a further 37% to 3371 active satellites.  

SpaceX’s Starlink system has approval from the US Federal Communications Commission for 12,000 satellites and the company is seeking authorisation for a further 30,000 satellites, with the growth of LEO filings with national regulatory agencies leading aviation giant Boeing to separately raise serious concerns about the long-term space safety and sustainability.  

Flinders University Professor (Digital Technology, Security and Governance) Melissa de Zwart, who is deputy chairman of the Space Industry Association of Australia, says there is real cause for concern.  

“We have heard about the possible Starlink debris falling to Earth in regional NSW, and Russia’s move to exit the International Space Station which is due to be retired after 20 years in space,” says Professor de Zwart, who is director of the JBC for the US Alliance in Digital Technology, Security and Governance. 

“We also need to weigh up the risks against the advantages of opening up promising new low-cost channels of communication and connectivity, as well as Internet of Things and Machine-to-Machine applications, that could bring significant benefits to remote and financially disadvantaged communities.”
As well as spectrum capacity and management of debris which may cause harm in space or on Earth, the Flinders report considers several other complex challenges including physical and spectral interference management; optical and radio astronomy, including casual night sky viewing; and competition between operators in the LEO region.  

Low Earth Orbit, Satellite Constellations and Regulation (2022) by Melissa de Zwart and Joel Lisk has been published in (Flinders University) DOI: 10. With support from the Swinburne University of Technology ARC Discovery Project: ‘Spectrum after Scarcity: Rethinking Radiofrequency Management.’   

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