When I first started working with small satellites, more than
a decade ago, no one could have predicted today’s large LEO constellations. Satellites were big and expensive, and mostly belonged to governmental organizations- and the UN Space Treaties have successfully reflected this situation. It was only logical to utilize public international law in order to regulate satellites’ operations in outer space, not only because space
is not subject to the sovereignty of any specific state, but because the satellites were owned and operated by states.
In my book “Regulating a Revolution: Small satellites and the Law of Outer Space” I analyse the many ways in which non-governmental ownership of small satellites revolutionized and challenged the traditional perception of space activities and their regulation.
The case of the new large constellations takes things to the extreme: instead of governmental- private, instead of diplomatic channels- industry, and instead of justifying activities as beneficial to all countries- it is about the money. We would
be delusional to trust that public international law can solely balance the interest of the now many different stakeholders in space activities.
In this sense, my view is that large LEO constellations push us away from the Outer Space Treaty, and towards commercial law which has to be applied on satellite operations.
A recent incident where small satellites from two different large constellations were on collision course illustrate my argument: although the collision was avoided, not all private satellite owners act according to the core values of the Space Treaties. Difficulties in cooperation and coordination were reported; can we expect two commercial entities, which happen to be competitors, to act as if they were two nations perusing space activities?
My answer to this question is “no”. Maneuvering satellites
is an expensive and risky endeavour, this will have to be justified towards investors and shareholders. Perhaps the change in orbit might put a certain operator in breach of its service agreement towards its customer too. And since the governments which authorized and licensed these satellites operations, are not found in the control rooms, the decision to change orbit to avoid a collision is now reserved to CEOs, not nations.
I look forward to seeing what the next decade- the age of LEO constellations, will bring, and how commercial interests in space activities will interplay with international space law.