NASA objects to new megaconstellation, citing risk of “catastrophic collison”

Dashes fleck the night sky.
Enlarge / Sixty Starlink Internet communication satellites from SpaceX are seen in the night sky over Vladivostok.

NASA has formally commented (PDF) on a request by a US company to build a megaconstellation of satellites at an altitude of 720km above the Earth’s surface, citing concerns about collisions. This appears to be the first time that NASA has publicly commented on such an application for market access, which is pending before the Federal Communications Commission.

“NASA submits this letter during the public comment period for the purpose of providing a better understanding of NASA’s concerns with respect to its assets on-orbit, to further mitigate the risks of collisions for the mutual benefit of all involved,” wrote Samantha Fonder, an engineer for the space agency.

At issue are plans put forth by AST & Science, which intends to build a constellation of more than 240 large satellites, essentially deploying “cell towers” in space to provide 4G and possibly 5G broadband connection directly to cell phones on Earth. The company, based in Midland, Texas, calls its constellation “SpaceMobile” and has raised an estimated $120 million.

The space agency felt compelled to comment on AST’s proposal for several reasons. Most notably, the proposed altitude for the SpaceMobile constellation lies near the “A-Train,” a group of 10 Earth-science monitoring satellites operated by NASA and the US Geological Survey, as well as partners in France and Japan. “Historical experience with the A-Train constellation has shown that this particular region of space tends to produce a large number of conjunctions between space objects,” the NASA letter states.

They’re big, too

The satellites are also very large. In order to provide service, AST plans to build spacecraft with large phased array antennae—900 square meters. According to NASA, in planning for potential conjunctions with other satellites and debris in this orbit, this would require proscribing a “hard-body radius” of 30 meters, or as much as 10 times larger than other satellites.

Maneuvering around the proposed SpaceMobile constellation would be extraordinarily taxing, NASA said. “For the completed constellation of 243 satellites, one can expect 1,500 mitigation actions per year and perhaps 15,000 planning activities,” the space agency stated. “This would equate to four maneuvers and 40 active planning activities on any given day.”

Finally, the space agency is concerned because AST has never built a satellite remotely close in size to the 1-ton or larger vehicles that will populate its constellation. Given this lack of experience, it is expected that 10 percent or more of the satellites may fail, making them unable to maneuver to avoid collisions. NASA found the risk of a catastrophic collision to be “unacceptably high.”

NASA submitted its comment on October 30, and the comment period closed Monday. Most of the other comments on the AST application were supportive.

In response to a query from Ars about NASA’s submission, AST said it would work with NASA to ameliorate its concerns. “We have reviewed NASA’s letter and are confident that we can work with them to

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Citing a ‘toxic atmosphere,’ a Black admissions employee resigns from Loyola University, prompting a discrimination probe and calls for racial justice on campus

At Loyola University Chicago, where fewer than 6% of undergraduates are Black, Marcus Mason-Vivit’s presence comforted minority students who rarely found someone who looked like them on campus.



a man wearing a suit and tie: Marcus Mason-Vivit, shown on Loyola University Chicago's campus, resigned from his job in the admissions office, citing a "toxic atmosphere ... particularly pertaining to people of color."


© Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Marcus Mason-Vivit, shown on Loyola University Chicago’s campus, resigned from his job in the admissions office, citing a “toxic atmosphere … particularly pertaining to people of color.”

A Black man himself, Mason-Vivit led the private Jesuit university’s efforts to increase racial diversity among first-year students in his role at the Undergraduate Admission Office. He was known to send high school seniors handwritten letters encouraging them to attend Loyola and for going out of his way to forge relationships with the Black students he met.

But last month, Mason-Vivit stepped down from his position in multicultural recruitment. In a scathing resignation letter that quickly circulated on social media, he called the admissions office a “toxic atmosphere of hostility, intimidation, fear and manipulation … especially pertaining to people of color” and described an incident where his boss, the dean of undergraduate admission, allegedly made a racially disparaging remark. His departure has prompted Loyola to initiate an investigation.

Now, students and faculty are rallying behind Mason-Vivit, raising questions about Loyola’s newly stated goal of “becoming a fully inclusive anti-racist institution.”

“We do not think that this initiative will achieve much credibility until the issues, such as those raised by Marcus Mason, and the school’s handling of such complaints have been thoroughly addressed,” leaders of a Loyola faculty organization wrote in a letter to university President Jo Ann Rooney.

In an interview with the Tribune, Mason-Vivit, 34, said he tried reporting his concerns to the human resources office in July but felt brushed aside, leading eventually to his Aug. 24 resignation.

“I will no longer work in an environment diametrically opposed to my principles and the obligation to respect my existence,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

The dean of undergraduate admission, Erin Moriarty, declined to comment, saying by email that she does “not want to jeopardize the integrity of this investigation in any way by speaking out of turn.”

Loyola spokeswoman Anna Rozenich confirmed the investigation, related to “allegations of discrimination” in the office, is ongoing but would not say who is conducting it. After Loyola’s Office for Equity and Compliance began an internal investigation, the school decided to hire outside experts to lead the probe “due to the charged nature” of the allegations, Rozenich said.

“Out of respect for the rights of all parties, we must maintain that all parties deserve to be heard, and allow the investigation to be thoroughly conducted and conclude while refraining from judgment or condemnation,” Rozenich said in an emailed statement.

She said “appropriate action” will be taken at the end of the investigation and emphasized Loyola’s policy prohibiting discrimination.

Mason-Vivit, however, said he could no longer remain silent. His last day as Loyola’s associate director for multicultural recruitment was Sept. 4, and he previously worked in the admission office from

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