Large constellations of small satellites raise various legal issues in relation to their launch and operations, as well as in relation to the provision of services.
As for the launch of satellite constellations, new types of smaller and/or reusable launchers will significantly decrease the waiting times between launches. As highlighted by the FCC in its 2020 Report and Order on Streamlining Licensing Procedures for Small Satellites “smaller, nimbler launch providers underscores the importance of reducing wait times for licensing and regulatory approval”.
As for the operations of satellite constellations, the resulting sharp increase in the number of satellites orbiting the Earth causes a threat to the sustainability of space activities, including higher collision risks, growth of space debris and monopolization of most frequented orbits. From a legal perspective, such threats to space sustainability are to be addressed through licensing procedures under national space law.
Non-binding international guidelines on the mitigation of space debris are thereby imposed on operators as mandatory measures. Some States such as the US are currently in the process of adapting their national frameworks on space debris mitigation in the light of the rise of satellite constellations.
Other regulatory measures, namely regarding the protection of astronomy, can be predicted.
Operations of large constellations are challenging traditional approaches under national space law, i.e. granting a single license per satellite and requesting an insurance policy corresponding to a liability cap per satellite. In view that satellites of a constellation may have the same technical parameters, new or amended space laws are urged to provide the possibility for constellation or group licenses and special liability and insurance solutions.
While market competitiveness, fast production and launch rates call for faster licensing procedures, the particularities and complexities of large constellations, including impact on astronomy or assessments of collision risks, may require in-depth evaluations by licensing authorities.
Under international telecommunications law, access to spectrum and its coordinated use are extremely challenging. The ITU has adopted a milestone-based approach for the bringing into use of NGSO satellite systems at WRC-19 and further regulatory measures can be expected for WRC-23.
As regards the provision of global broadband or connectivity services, landing rights under national telecommunications law remain a barrier in numerous countries. Operators may be requested to establish local affiliates, operate gateway stations or to cooperate with local entities.