It’s nice that some folks will be able to be better connected to the Internet with Starlink around the globe. And what I am about to say is NOT meant to inspire guilt for using Starlink, but more to raise important existential questions. I am quite concerned about the number of satellites Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, and other companies, including Amazon, will eventually be launching into low Earth orbit (LEO). Currently, according to an article in Science, and another article from CNBC, SpaceX has about 2,000 satellites in orbit, with FCC approval already for another 12,000. SpaceX has plans for a great many more satellites than that. There are predictions that eventually we could have 100,000 satellites in LEO. Hello, space junk!
Already, monetizing LEO is affecting the field of astronomy in significant ways. Astronomy is a key discipline for humans to sort out the mysteries of the universe and our place in it. SpaceX has put visors on subsequent satellites after the first outcry from both night sky viewers and astronomers. The visors help some, to the naked eye, but not perfectly. But they do not solve the interference in astronomy work. Other companies may not care about whether their satellites can be seen or not. As I’ve read, there is no global blueprint for fielding this issue.
Already I am noticing, shortly after evening falls, more wobbly, zigzagging satellites crossing my view of the stars. Sadly, much of humanity lives in so much light pollution now, they can’t see the stars. But for those of us that can, stargazing is an age-old human pastime that is important, I believe, for well-being. Seeing the Milky Way, constellations, shooting stars, and sometimes even the aurora borealis reminds us of the vastness of the universe, and keeps alive wonder and appreciation of beauty. The night sky reminds us that we don’t have all the answers for understanding how things work. In fact, on a grand scale, as Einstein liked to remind us, we know very little. Lastly, what of migratory species that navigate by stars? Do we know what interference this may have?
All of this begs the question: Who owns space? Doesn’t it “belong” to all living creatures on Earth? Do we have a right not to have the night sky obliterated by LEO objects? Really, if you get right down to it, space belongs to no one. Yet, there are also plans, in this revived space race, to sell off parts of the moon to the highest bidders for mining and other plunder.
We have so many difficult issues down here on the planet Earth, and we are floundering at solving them. Meanwhile, as this larger space issue is manifesting in the background, I fear no one is paying attention. If we can’t solve complex issues here—gun violence, climate change, starvation, war—how will we ever come to agreement on these questions about space, and saving our night sky?