GAO REPORT: Large Constellations of Satellites: Mitigating Environmental and Other Effects
A landmark new U.S. Government Accountability Office report documents the potential environmental impacts of satellites and ways to mitigate the effects.
“For decades, satellites have been used for GPS, communications, and remote sensing. The number of satellites has recently increased, as thousands more have been launched to provide internet access. But this increase may be disruptive. For example, it could lead to more space debris, which can damage existing satellites used for commerce or national security. We reviewed technologies and other tools to lessen potential effects. We also looked at mitigation challenges, like unclear rules and immature technology. To help address the challenges, we developed policy options, which may help policymakers achieve a variety of goals.”
“GAO assessed technologies and approaches to evaluate and mitigate the following potential effects:
- Increase in orbital debris. Debris in space can damage or destroy satellites, affecting commercial services, scientific observation, and national security. Better characterizing debris, increasing adherence to operational guidelines, and removing debris are among the possible mitigations, but achieving these is challenging.
- Emissions into the upper atmosphere. Rocket launches and satellite reentries produce particles and gases that can affect atmospheric temperatures and deplete the ozone layer. Limiting use of rocket engines that produce certain harmful emissions could mitigate the effects. However, the size and significance of these effects are poorly understood due to a lack of observational data, and it is not yet clear if mitigation is warranted.
- Disruption of astronomy. Satellites can reflect sunlight and transmit radio signals that obstruct observations of natural phenomena. Satellite operators and astronomers are beginning to explore ways of mitigating these effects with technologies to darken satellites, and with tools to help astronomers avoid or filter out light reflections or radio transmissions. However, the efficacy of these techniques remains in question, and astronomers need more data about the satellites to improve mitigations.