With its relative lack of nighttime light, Maine is a good place to gaze at the stars. Over the next decade, that view is almost certainly going to change.

More than 50,000 satellites could be launched into orbit in the next 10 years, up from just a few thousand today, the Washington Post reported last week.

Those satellites could help do some remarkable things, such as bring internet to areas of the world where it is now unavailable. But they will also clutter the skies, interfering with stargazing and astronomic research, and possibly hampering national security.

It’s something the federal government needs to closely monitor. Right now, however, there’s a fight over who should have the job.

The Trump administration two years ago put the Commerce Department in charge of establishing the rules governing satellites, which are increasingly used for defense, communications, GPS services and entertainment.

Since then, it’s gone nowhere. The president’s Office of Space Commerce needs congressional authority and funding to get started, a low priority before the pandemic hit. What’s more, some in Congress would rather the authority sit with the Federal Aviation Administration.


So for now, the Pentagon will keep tracking satellites and space debris, warning governments and private companies when a collision is impending. It does not want the job, and it’s antiquated system can’t keep up with the increasing amount of debris.

Satellites in orbit move at very high speeds, making any collision devastating, even when only small objects are involved. Collisions have already put astronauts in danger.

They also cause more debris — one in 2009 created almost 2,000 new pieces of space junk — which in turn causes more collisions.

In the next 10 years, there could be as many as 404 such collisions and 17 million close calls, one company that tracks space debris predicted.

If nothing is done, debris from collisions could make large swaths of space unusable for years to come. It could also inhibit the Pentagon’s ability to protect the nation against new threats.

That’s not to mention what all the new satellites will do to stargazing once they outnumber the approximately 9,000 stars visible to the naked eye. Constellations of satellites have already interfered with some astronomic observations.


That’s not to disregard the potential of new satellites. SpaceX, for example, has federal approval to put 12,000 small satellites in orbit and would like to launch an additional 30,000, to create an internet service provider to compete with other companies and deliver service to remote areas of the planet. The benefits could be astounding.

But such beneficial applications of satellite technology won’t be possible if if the low-earth orbit gets filled with trash.

Recent changes to federal rules raised requirements for satellite makers, but not enough. The technology exists to make satellites more able to avoid collisions and to self-destruct when their use is over; SpaceX says it is using such technology. It should be mandatory.

And the federal government needs to establish and fund an agency for monitoring and regulating satellite traffic, and lead an international effort to handle all the new traffic.

So much impacting our lives over the coming decades will take place in the increasingly crowded skies. The U.S. needs to be every bit the leader there that it is closer to land.

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