The Earth’s orbit is increasingly crowded with satellites. This gives rise to questions concerning how to navigate the inevitable territorial disputes between satellite operators. For example, if one operator believes that another operator’s satellites are encroaching on its own satellites’ space, does it have a legal remedy?
This issue recently came before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (the “D.C. Circuit”) in Viasat, Inc. v. Federal Communications Commission, 47 F.4th 769 (D.C. Cir. 2022). In that case, the Federal Communications Commission (the “FCC”) granted Space Exploration Holdings, LLC (which goes by “SpaceX”) approval to deploy thousands of communication satellites at a lower altitude to reduce transmission latency. The FCC’s decision was then challenged by two of SpaceX’s competitors as well as an environmental research and advocacy organisation on various grounds in the D.C. Circuit. The appeals were ultimately unsuccessful.
While Viasat is a U.S. case, it is not difficult to envisage a comparable set of facts arising in the U.K. in the context of the new domestic space regime. To propose a thought experiment: say Company A (akin to SpaceX in Viasat) operates satellites from the U.K. at a certain altitude above Earth and wishes to move them to a lower altitude. However, Company B is concerned that this will negatively affect its own satellites operated from the U.K. and wishes to prevent Company A from doing so. Does Company B have a legal remedy?