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Elon Musk being allowed to ‘make the rules’ in space, ESA chief warns

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The head of the European Space Agency has urged the continent’s leaders to stop facilitating Elon Musk’s ambition to dominate the new space economy, warning that the lack of co-ordinated action meant the US billionaire was “making the rules” himself.

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 risked hindering the region’s own companies from realising the potential of commercial space.

“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 collectively should have an interest to . . . give European providers equal opportunities to play on a fair market.”

Germany has recently applied to the International Telecommunications Union, which co-ordinates the use of wireless frequencies for carrying data, to grant Starlink spectrum for about 40,000 satellites. Musk has already won approval for more than 30,000 satellites through US regulators.

Earlier this year, Musk said SpaceX, his private rocket company, was prepared to spend up to US$30 billion ($44.4b) to expand Starlink.

Aschbacher said Musk’s Starlink was already so big that it was difficult for regulators or rivals to catch 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.”

Starlink and the UK government-backed OneWeb are leading a rush to create mega-constellations of hundreds and even thousands of satellites in low earth orbit, or LEO, to provide broadband to places hard to reach by cable.

The Chinese government and Amazon’s Project Kuiper both plan to launch their own LEO constellations.

A new generation of space companies, driven by falling launch costs and cheaper satellites, is also aiming to deliver commercial services from LEO such as earth observation.

The rush to tap the potential of commercial space — made possible by falling launch costs and cheaper, smaller satellites — has fuelled concern over the absence of a global space traffic management system for low earth orbit, a region of up to 2,000km above the earth where most new commercial services are targeted.

Last year the Satellite Industry Association estimated there could be more than 100,000 commercial spacecraft in orbit by 2029.

Aschbacher’s concerns were echoed 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, 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” 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 much small number of expensive, high orbit satellites to provide services such as television transmission.

Although the ITU co-ordinates radio frequencies, there is no overarching international authority or regulator controlling the launch of satellites. One fear is that, as orbits become overcrowded, there is a growing risk of collisions which could generate catastrophic quantities of debris. Space junk is already a significant hazard.

Steve Collar, chief executive of satellite operator SES, said the industry was “heading for a situation where there will be far too many satellites deployed. A lot of these plans . . . are in direct response to the fact that nobody is properly regulating.” Luxembourg owns a third of SES voting rights.

Musk, in particular, has come under fire from astronomers and rivals for the pace of his expansion. Earlier this year his SpaceX rocket company was launching more than 100 satellites every month, with close to 2,000 currently in low earth orbit.

Astronomers worry that huge numbers of satellites will interfere with ground-based telescopes and could “impact the appearance of the night sky for stargazers worldwide,” according to a report by the American Astronomical Society.

Ralph Dinsley, founder of NORSS, which tracks 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 rivals to occupy the most desirable orbital planes. “At the speed he is putting these into orbit, he is almost owning those orbital planes, because no one can get in there. He is creating a Musk sovereignty in space.”

Aschbacher said it was clear that US regulators, as part of a national government, were “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.”

Written by: Peggy Hollinger and Clive Cookson

© Financial Times

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