The Complicated Role of the Private Sector in Space

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Right now we are witnessing the growing dominance of commercial players in space, particularly the rise of mega-constellations, or large numbers of small satellites flying in formation to provide global coverage for a variety of government uses. and commercial, including communications and Earth observation. Consequently, the fundamental nature of space is changing, towards a domain dominated by commercial actors. This change will have major consequences for international stability, both in terms of demonstrating the abandonment of the old space governance structure and highlighting Russia’s declining rank among the world’s space powers. Some orbits may be effectively supported by a handful of entities, and there will be competition for useful portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. With eyes fixed on the sky everywhere, there will be little or no room for state secrets, for better or for worse. This is happening at the same time as Russia’s space identity is collapsing, which could further disrupt the stability of the space domain.

As of November 2021, there were approximately 4,800 active satellites orbiting Earth, of which approximately 1,850 belong to a single entity: SpaceX’s Starlink mega-constellation (Thompson 2021). This change happened very quickly, as Starlink satellites began launching in May 2019 (O’Callaghan 2019). This is only the first wave of mega-constellations as well. Although it is difficult to say exactly how many satellites will be launched as part of this new use of space, there are requests or plans for mega-constellations which could mean that more than 100,000 new satellites could potentially be in low Earth orbit. Although not all of these satellites will be launched, even a small fraction of the proposed number will fundamentally change the situation so that the main players in space will no longer be nation states (as has been the case until now) but the private sector, changing the stamp of the space domain.

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