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Saturday, December 9, 2023

the new Wild West of mega-constellations

A new space conquest has begun. In the United States, China and Europe, new technology giants and large operators want to colonize the orbit closest to the Earth (low orbit) with tens of thousands of satellites. Capable of providing ultra-fast Internet anywhere on the globe, these mega-constellations are whetting the appetite of manufacturers. States, too, are interested. In the eyes of governments, these constellations constitute a technology of choice for maintaining a secure connection when terrestrial networks fail. This gives rise to issues of sovereignty: there is no question for the Old Continent, the country of Uncle Sam or the Middle Kingdom of depending on the goodwill of a foreign network.

Consumption: a (slightly) more eco-responsible Christmas

The craze for mega-constellations is already very real. Billionaires such as Elon Musk (with Starlink), Jeff Bezos (and his Kuiper project) and Greg Wyler (E-Space) are eyeing this vein. They plan, respectively, to launch 30,000, 3,250 and 100,000 satellites! But this new spatial Wild West that is becoming the low orbit occupied by these legions of satellites raises concerns, in particular for environmental reasons.

Disaster risk

Three institutions, the National Center for Space Studies (Cnes), the Electronic Communications Regulatory Authority (Arcep) and Ademe, the ecological transition agency, want to take the subject head on. They are organizing a first conference this Monday in Paris. The objective: to measure the environmental impact of mega-constellations, which is currently unknown.

In the eyes of Laure de La Raudière, the president of Arcep, the multiplication of these projects ” has no sense “. “We risk a traffic jam, adds Sylvain Waserman, president of Ademe. We realize that the space we thought was infinite and limitless is not. » At the head of Cnes, Philippe Baptiste insists on the risk of a “hypertraffic” in low orbit, particularly necessary for the fight against climate change. “This is a crucial subject, he continues. We all think about the disasters that could happen if we had too many objects incapable of maneuvering. » His fear? That collisions between satellites increase, generating debris which itself would increase the risk of collisions. “It is, potentially, the entire low orbit which could disappear”, warns Philippe Baptiste.

This observation allows Arcep to position itself, as Laure de La Raudière assumes, in ” alert launcher “. Today, the telecoms policeman has new powers to measure the carbon footprint of digital technology and collect data from French players. But it is powerless compared to the main operators of mega-constellations, which are American and Chinese. “I do not have, for example, the legal basis to recover data from Starlink because it is simply not established in France,” she regrets. How does she plan to get around this situation? With more environmental requirements on a European scale. The idea would be, for example, to“have legal leverage” to refuse frequencies to constellation operators “which do not respect certain environmental standards” in the manufacturing and launching of satellites.

Resilience of Ukraine

However, are these concerns compatible with the requirements of state sovereignty? “Governments must be confident that they can continue to communicate securely, including if there are major incidents on submarine telecoms cables, explains Philippe Baptiste. It is still something that has a lot of value in a geostrategic environment which is very, very shaken today. » Thanks to Starlink, Ukraine has demonstrated resilience against Russia’s jamming and destruction of telecoms infrastructure intended to blind it. That said, mega-constellations are incapable of replacing, at least for the moment, terrestrial networks, the only ones capable of absorbing the entire world demand (Internet and communications).

For his part, Sylvain Waserman considers that ecology can, in terms of sovereignty, constitute an asset for Europe. “Regulate based on environmental impact” would, according to the president of Ademe, allow “favor a European constellation over an American or Chinese constellation without clashing with the rules of the WTO (World Trade Organization)”.

Beyond sovereignty, the question of the competitiveness of French, or even European, players in a globalized industry arises. New standards could, in particular, penalize Airbus.