Elon Musk’s Satellite Internet Project Is Too Risky, Rivals Say
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Elon Musk’s Satellite Internet Project Is Too Risky, Rivals Say

In a rush to claim orbital real-estate, competitors ask regulators to clamp down on SpaceX’s Starlink project

By BOJAN PANCEVSKI
Tue, Apr 20, 2021 1:35pmGrey Clock 5 min

Elon Musk’s internet satellite venture has spawned an unlikely alliance of competitors, regulators and experts who say the billionaire is building a near-monopoly that is threatening space safety and the environment.

The Starlink project, owned by Mr. Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. or SpaceX, is authorized to send some 12,000 satellites into orbit to beam superfast internet to every corner of the Earth. It has sought permission for another 30,000.

Now, rival companies such as Viasat Inc., OneWeb Global Ltd., Hughes Network Systems and Boeing Co. are challenging Starlink’s space race in front of regulators in the U.S. and Europe. Some complain that Mr. Musk’s satellites are blocking their own devices’ signals and have physically endangered their fleets.

Mr. Musk’s endeavor is still in beta testing but it has already disrupted the industry, and even spurred the European Union to develop a rival space-based internet project to be unveiled by the end of the year.

The critics’ main argument is that Mr. Musk’s launch-first, upgrade-later principle, which made his Tesla Inc. electric car company a pioneer, gives priority to speed over quality, filling Earth’s already crowded orbit with satellites that may need fixing after they launch.

“SpaceX has a gung-ho approach to space,” said Chris McLaughlin, government affairs chief for rival OneWeb. “Every one of our satellites is like a Ford Focus—it does the same thing, it gets tested, it works—while Starlink satellites are like Teslas: They launch them and then they have to upgrade and fix them, or even replace them altogether,” Mr. McLaughlin said.

SpaceX didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Around 5% of the first batch of Starlink satellites failed, SpaceX said in 2019. They were left to gradually fall back to earth and vaporize in the process. In November 2020, astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics calculated that the Starlink failure rate was nearly 3%. Mr. McDowell said Starlink has vastly improved the design of their satellites since then, and that the failure rate is currently below 1%, and on track to improve further.

Even with the constant improvement, Mr. McDowell said, Starlink will operate so many satellites that even a low failure rate would mean a relatively high threat to orbital safety because of the potential for collisions. “They clearly have been making continuous improvements…but it’s a challenging thing they are doing and it’s not clear that they will be able to manage the final constellation,” he said.

Starlink operates more than 1,300 spacecraft in Earth’s lower orbit and is adding some 120 more every month. Its fleet is now on track to top the total number of satellites that have been launched since the 1950s—around 9,000.

Orbital space is finite, and the current lack of universal regulation means companies can place satellites on a first-come, first-served basis. And Mr. Musk is on track to stake a claim for most of the free orbital real estate, largely because, unlike competitors, he owns his own rockets.

In the coming days, the Federal Communications Commission in the U.S. is set to approve a request by SpaceX to modify its license and allow a greater number of satellites to orbit at a lower altitude of around 550 kilometres (a kilometre is 0.625 mile). If approved, competitor satellites would have to navigate around SpaceX’s fleet to place their own spacecraft.

Other companies operating in space have asked the FCC to impose conditions on SpaceX, including lowering its fleet’s failure rate to 1 in 1,000, and improving collision-avoidance capabilities while ensuring they don’t block the transmissions of other craft orbiting above them.

“You should have fewer satellites and make them more capable,” Mark Dankberg, Viasat founder and executive chairman, said.

On Twitter, Mr. Musk commented on Mr. Dankberg’s earlier warnings that his company posed a hazard to orbital traffic by tweeting: “Starlink ‘poses a hazard’ to Viasat’s profits, more like it.”

A spokesman for Boeing, which is also challenging Starlink at the FCC, said it is “critically important to the future of a safe and sustainable orbital environment that standards be globally consistent and enable a competitive playing field.”

In the region of space where Starlink operates, satellites orbit the earth at 18,000 miles an hour. Any collision could spread high-velocity debris that could make the orbit unusable for years.

Competitors say Starlink satellites have low maneuverability, meaning that other firms’ craft have to act when collisions threaten.

Starlink satellites have come alarmingly close to other spacecraft twice in the last two years, including on April 2, when a Starlink satellite prompted another operated by OneWeb, controlled by Indian conglomerate Bharti Global and the U.K. government, to make evasive maneuvers, according to OneWeb and the U.S. Space Command.

Mr. Musk’s satellites are equipped with an AI-powered, automated collision avoidance system. Yet that system had to be switched off when a Starlink satellite came within 190 feet of the rival’s satellite this month, according to OneWeb’s Mr. McLaughlin.

When contacted by OneWeb, Starlink’s engineers said they couldn’t do anything to avoid a collision and switched off the collision avoidance system so OneWeb could maneuver around the Starlink satellite without interference, according to Mr. McLaughlin.

Starlink hasn’t revealed details about their AI collision avoidance system. Mr. McDowell, the astrophysicist, said it was hard to take any such system seriously when it remains unclear what data it uses to operate.

A similar incident took place in late 2019, when a Starlink satellite was on a near-collision course with an EU weather satellite, according to the European Space Agency, which runs EU satellites. The agency said it was only able to contact Starlink via email and the company told it they would take no action, so EU engineers had to initiate a collision avoidance maneuver.

SpaceX didn’t reply to requests for comment about the two incidents

Lower earth orbit is getting crowded with broadband satellite constellations: Amazon.com Inc.’s Project Kuiper aims to put out 3,200 satellites, Britain’s OneWeb about 700 and Telesat of Canada around 300. Russia and China are working on their own, potentially massive, constellations.

An EU official said that owning a constellation that can beam broadband internet to Earth is a strategic priority for the bloc. It is expected to publish a road map for a public-private partnership to create a broadband satellite fleet worth around €6 billion, equivalent to $7.19 billion, by the end of the year.

Space-safety experts say the number of projects means more regulation is needed to avoid potential catastrophes.

“It’s a race to the bottom in terms of getting as much stuff up there as possible to claim orbital real estate,” said Moriba Jah, associate professor at the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Texas at Austin. “Musk is just doing what’s legal…but legal is not necessarily safe or sustainable.”

Nevertheless, most governments welcome the onset of satellite-beamed broadband as a cheaper and faster alternative to building broadband networks. In Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, the leading telecom provider Deutsche Telekom recently signalled a willingness to join with Starlink.

“I’m a great admirer of Elon Musk and his ideas,” Deutsche Telekom Chief Executive Timotheus Höttges said in January.

 

Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: April 19, 2021



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Cocoa and Coffee Prices Have Surged. Climate Change Will Only Take Them Higher.

Some chocolatiers and coffee makers say they will have to pass on the extra cost to consumers

By JOSEPH HOPPE
Sat, Apr 13, 2024 5 min

Global prices for cocoa and coffee are surging as severe weather events hamper production in key regions, raising questions from farm to table over the long-term damage climate change could have on soft commodities.

Cultivating cocoa and coffee requires very specific temperature, water and soil conditions. Now, more frequent heat waves, heavy rainfalls and droughts are damaging harvests and crippling supplies amid ever growing demand from customers worldwide.

“Adverse weather conditions, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere, have played an important role in sending several food commodities sharply higher,” said Ole Hansen , head of commodity strategy at Saxo Bank.

The spikes in prices are a threat to coffee and chocolate makers across the globe.

Swiss consumer-goods giant Nestlé was able to pass only a fraction of the cocoa price increase to customers last year, and it may need to adjust pricing in the future due to persistently high prices, a spokesperson said.

Italian coffee maker Lavazza reported revenue of more than $3 billion for last year, but said profitability was hit by soaring coffee bean prices, particularly for green and Robusta coffee, and its decision to limit price increases.

Likewise, chocolatier Chocoladefabriken Lindt & Spruengli said in its 2023 results that weather and climate conditions played a major role in the global shortage of cocoa beans that led to historically high prices. The company had to lift the sales prices of its products and said it would need to further raise them this year and next if cocoa prices remain at current levels.

Hershey ’s chief executive, Michele Buck , said in February that historic cocoa prices are expected to limit earnings growth this year, and that the company plans to use “every tool in its toolbox,” including price hikes, to manage the impact on business.

In West Africa, where about 70% of global cocoa is produced, powerhouses Ivory Coast and Ghana are facing catastrophic harvests this season as El Niño—the pattern of above-average sea surface temperatures—led to unseasonal heavy rainfalls followed by strong heat waves.

Extreme heat has weakened cocoa trees already damaged from heavy rainfall at the end of last year, according to Morningstar DBRS’s Aarti Magan and Moritz Steinbauer. The rain also worsened road conditions, disrupting cocoa bean deliveries to export ports.

The International Cocoa Organization—a global body composed of cocoa producing and consuming member countries—said in its latest monthly report that it expects the global supply deficit to widen to 374,000 metric tons in the 2023-24 season, from 74,000 tons last season. Global cocoa supply is anticipated to decline by almost 11% to 4.449 million tons when compared with 2022-23.

“Significant declines in production are expected from the top producing countries as they are envisaged to feel the detrimental effect of unfavorable weather conditions and diseases,” the organization said.

While the effects of climate change are severe, other serious structural issues are also hitting West African cocoa production in the short- to medium-term. Illegal mining poses a significant threat to cocoa farms in Ghana, destroying arable land and poisoning water supplies, and the problem is becoming increasingly relevant in the Ivory Coast, according to BMI.

The issues are being magnified by deforestation carried out to increase cocoa production. Since 1950, Ivory Coast has lost around 90% of its forests, while Ghana has lost around 65% over the same period. This has driven farmers to areas less suited to cocoa cultivation like grasslands, increasing the amount of labor required and bringing further downside risks to the harvest, the research firm said.

The Ivory Coast’s cocoa mid-crop harvest—which officially starts in April and runs until September—is expected to fall to 400,000-500,000 tons from 600,000-620,000 tons last year, with weather expected to play a crucial role in shaping the market balance for the season, ING analysts said, citing estimates from the country’s cocoa regulator. Ghana’s cocoa board also forecasts a slump in the harvest for this season to as low as 422,500 tons, the poorest in more than 20 years, according to BMI.

Neither regulator responded to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, extreme droughts in Southeast Asia—particularly in Vietnam and Indonesia—are resulting in lower coffee bean harvests, hurting producers’ output and global exports. Coffee inventories have recovered somewhat in recent weeks but remain low in recent historical terms. Robusta coffee has seen a severe deterioration in export expectations, while Arabica coffee is expected to return to a relatively narrow surplus this year, said Charles Hart, senior commodities analyst at BMI.

The global coffee benchmark prices, London Robusta futures, are up by 15% on-month to $3,825 a ton. Arabica coffee prices have also surged 17% over the last month to $2.16 a pound in lockstep with Robusta—its highest level since October 2022. Cocoa prices have more than tripled on-year over these supply crunch fears, and risen 49% in the last month alone to $10,050 a ton.

“Cocoa trees are particularly sensitive to weather and require very specific conditions to grow, this means that cocoa prices are especially vulnerable to extreme weather events, such as drought and periods of intense heat, as well as the longer-term impact of climate change,” said Lucrezia Cogliati, associate commodities analyst at BMI.

Cogliati said global cocoa consumption is expected to outpace production for the third consecutive season, with intense seasonal West African winds and plant diseases contributing to significant declines.

Consumers hoping for a return to cheaper prices for life’s little luxuries in the midterm may also be in for a bitter surprise.

“There is no sugarcoating it—consumers will ultimately be faced with higher chocolate prices, products that contain less chocolate, and/or shrinking product sizes,” Morningstar’s Magan and Steinbauer said in a report.

“We anticipate consumers could respond by searching widely for promotional discounts, trading down to value-based chocolate and confectionary products from premium products, switching to private-label from branded products and/or reducing volumes altogether.”

The record-breaking rally for cocoa and coffee is likely more than just a flash in the pan, according to Citi analysts, as adverse weather conditions and strong demand trends are likely to support prices in the months ahead. The U.S. bank estimates Arabica coffee futures in a range of $1.88-$2.15 a pound for the current year, but said projections could be lifted if the outlook for 2024-25 tightens further.

At the heart of it all, climate change is set to play a major role, as the impact of extreme weather events could exacerbate the pressure on cocoa and coffee supplies, according to market watchers.

“I don’t expect prices to remain at these levels, but if we continue to see more unusual weather as a result of global warming then we certainly could see more volatility in terms of cocoa yields going forward, which could impact pricing,” said Paul Joules, commodities analyst at Rabobank.

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