“This is not cool!”, astronomer Clarae Martínez-Vázquez frustratingly tweeted on November 18. Dr. Martínez-Vázquez was of course referring to a chain of 19 SpaceX satellites that obstructed the night sky and interfered with the observations of a dark energy camera based in Chile.

This will not be the last time satellites interrupt ground-based astronomy; SpaceX plans to launch up to 42,000 satellites as part of Starlink— a mission to make broadband Internet available to the entire planet. While the scientific community is rightfully frustrated by activities that interfere with their research, SpaceX is not the villain here. In fact, this situation does not have a villain at all.

This conflict between the Starlink project and scientific research does not stem from a cunning corporation that is acting in bad faith to pollute the night sky. Instead, it comes from the fact that low-Earth orbit is an unmanaged and unowned space. Resolving the conflict between SpaceX and ground-based astronomers is a matter of addressing how low-Earth orbit is managed.

Low-Earth Orbit as a Commons

The space just beyond Earth’s atmosphere is a commons much like the oceans and aquifers of Earth. Low-Earth orbit may not have commodities that can be quickly depleted through over-harvesting or mining, but it is a commons all the same. Low-Earth orbit has no clear owner, and — as the Starlink debacle has demonstrated — use for one purpose can reduce its value for other purposes. This means that low-Earth orbit must be managed to prevent one venture from destroying other opportunities.

There are several options available when attempting to deal with a commons. The two most common proposals are privatization and state ownership. These management options are extremely rudimentary and generally do not appreciate the nuances of common resources on Earth. Also, questions of ownership in space are currently not even viable. You cannot expect property rights to hold if you do not have the resources to establish and enforce boundaries!

So, neither privatization nor public ownership are real options for managing low-Earth orbit. What does that leave us with? Well, we don’t have many options left if our goal is to assign ownership. But we can manage low-Earth orbit effectively through dialogue and cooperation. For that, we turn to the work of the great economist and Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom.

Governing the Commons in Space

The heading of this section is a twist on Elinor Ostrom’s famous book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. In this remarkable text, Ostrom goes against conventional economic thinking by arguing that privatization is not the only effective way to manage a common resource. Instead of owning property, all of the stakeholders form a collective that regulates the commons through a set of agreed upon rules and norms.

The scientific community, space corporations, and other stakeholders should create a collective to align their interests and regulate the use of low-Earth orbit. Such a collective would:

  • Create a forum in which all stakeholders can engage in dialogue.
  • Establish a set of rules and norms designed to result in positive outcomes for all stakeholders.
  • Impose sanctions on rule-breakers.

This collective — let’s call it the LEO Commission — could be useful for both SpaceX and ground-based astronomers right now. Prior to the Starlink project, SpaceX representatives and astronomers could have used the LEO Commission to discuss their interests in low-Earth orbit. This discussion could go as follows.

SpaceX wants to fill low-Earth orbit with satellites, and the astronomers want a clear night sky to observe distant objects. With their end goals clear, the stakeholders negotiate. The astronomers and their affiliated organizations declare that they will sanction SpaceX if the company does not make concessions. Since SpaceX wants to maintain good relations with the public and the scientific community (from which they source their talent), SpaceX decides to move its satellites to a distance that is less obstructive. SpaceX even agrees to support astronomers by launching several satellite telescopes that will allow astronomers to overcome the difficulties of ground-based astronomy. A culture of reciprocity develops within the LEO Commission, and the interests of scientists and companies are reconciled.

Creating the LEO Commission should be one of our immediate goals. It is perhaps the only way to preserve the economic and scientific potential of space in a way that is beneficial to astronomers, SpaceX, and future stakeholders.