ESA head says Europe needs to stop facilitating Elon Musk’s ambitions in space

By E&T editorial staff,
Published by E&T Engineering and Technology, 6 December 2021

The new head of the European Space Agency (ESA) has urged European leaders to intervene and co-ordinate to prevent SpaceX CEO Elon Musk making the space economy his personal playground.

ESA director-general Josef Aschbacher expressed his views on Musk’s outsized role in the space sector in an interview with the Financial Times.

Aschbacher called on European leaders to stop facilitating Musk’s ambitions, such as by welcoming the sudden expansion of his Starlink satellite internet service in the region, making the case that this passivity hinders the regional space sector while putting Musk in a position to do as he wishes.

“Space will be much more restrictive [regarding] frequencies and orbital slots,” he told the Financial Times. “The governments of Europe collectively should have an interest [to] give European providers equal opportunities to play on a fair market.”

Starlink is a satellite constellation operated by SpaceX. It consists of over 1,700 satellites, with tens of thousands of small satellites still to launch. While satellite internet coverage reaches most of Earth, service can only be accessed in countries that have licensed SpaceX to provide the service.

In October 2019, the US communications regulator applied to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which co-ordinates use of wireless frequencies, on behalf of SpaceX to bid for spectrum for an additional 30,000 satellites. The US government has awarded SpaceX almost $900m in public subsidies to support the expansion of satellite internet coverage to rural areas.

More recently, Germany applied to the ITU to grant spectrum for 40,000 Starlink satellites.

Other companies which aim to launch satellite constellations to provide internet coverage are backed by the UK government (OneWeb), the Chinese government (project so far unnamed), and Amazon (Project Kuiper). However, these trail far behind Starlink. OneWeb, its closest competitor, has launched 218 of 648 planned satellites.

Aschbacher said Starlink is already so massive that competitors and regulators struggle to keep up: “You have one person owning half of the active satellites in the world – that’s quite amazing. De facto, he is making the rules. The rest of the world, including Europe… is just not responding quick enough.”

He added that US regulators are: “interested in developing not only the economy, but also certain dominance of certain economic sectors. This is happening… very, very, very, very clearly. And very strongly.”

The speed with which Musk’s Starlink satellites have been launched has raised concerns relating to their impact on astronomy and the crowding of low-earth orbit, amplifying the risk of damage due to space debris. The Satellite Industry Association estimates there could be more than 100,000 spacecraft in orbit by the end of the decade. SpaceX has responded to these concerns, stating that most Starlink satellites are planned to deorbit within five years.

Aschbacher’s comments echo those of Luxembourg’s economy minister, Franz Fayot, who said at the New Space conference: “You have people like Elon Musk, just launching constellations and satellites and throwing Teslas up into orbit. We need to set common rules. Colonisation, or just doing things in a completely deregulated space, is a concern.”

Although the ITU manages wireless frequencies, there is no international body with authority to regulate satellite launches. Last year, the UK government called for the United Nations to set up international discussions to agree on how countries should operate responsibly in space. It expressed concern that space is becoming increasingly congested and competed over, escalating the risk of accidents, misunderstandings, and miscalculations between nations.

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