Here, There, and Everywhere: Will Starlink Overwhelm Our Night Sky?

One night in late April, my husband happened to look out the window and noticed, passing over our valley in southwest Montana, a string of around 30 mysterious lights—too fast to be aircraft and apparently too numerous to be satellites.

The next day, a string of emails lit up a local listserv. People who’d observed the lights were wondering what they’d seen, and readers who knew what they’d seen were quick to respond: This was Starlink, a network of satellites intended to deliver high-speed broadband Internet to areas of the globe where such connectivity is currently costly, unreliable, or inaccessible. Deployed by SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by busy tech entrepreneur and would-be Martian Elon Musk, the network will ultimately consist of thousands of satellites and, according to its website, is projected to provide worldwide coverage by 2021.

   The night sky over Silverthorne, Colorado
    Credit: Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

The company got closer to that goal last week. On June 3, just four days after NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley traveled to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the company launched a Falcon 9 rocket with a batch of 60 satellites aboard, growing the network to a total of 480 low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellites.

A More Profitable Space

On its website, SpaceX describes Starlink as “a global network unbounded by ground infrastructure limitations.” And though supporters of the system believe space-based broadband can bring enormous, democratizing benefits—empowering remote communities, enabling connection and communication among the politically oppressed—Starlink isn’t without controversy. Detractors say the sheer number of satellites will be a blight on the already endangered night sky. The satellites’ trails, for instance, will contribute to light pollution and interfere with astronomical imaging.

The mega-constellation will also be joining an already crowded low-Earth orbit, a spacescape that currently plays host to research and telecom satellites and the International Space Station. To date there have only been a little under 9,500 satellites launched into space, of which around 2,600 remain. Musk hopes to grow Starlink to as many as 42,000.

That’s a lot of satellites. And they won’t be alone. The market for worldwide Internet connectivity is estimated to be around $1 trillion. Vying for a piece of that lucrative pie are governments, tech giants like Amazon and Alphabet, and global communication companies like OneWeb, which partnered with Airbus Defence and Space to launch 74 of a planned 600 satellites before filing for bankruptcy in March.

In addition to the visual havoc it may wreak on the night sky, the proliferation of satellites in LEO also creates an increased risk of collisions and contributes to a growing collection of orbiting debris.

In June 2019, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) released a statement about the effects of mega-constellations on astronomical observations and dark-sky regions. IAU, it said, “embraces the principle of a dark and radio-quiet sky as not only essential to advancing our understanding of the Universe of which we are a part, but also as a resource for all humanity and for the protection of nocturnal wildlife.” In a follow-up summary, released in February, of the impacts of satellite constellations so far assessed, the IAU said that “the uncontaminated view of the night sky from dark places … should be considered a non-renounceable world human heritage.”

Now You See Them …

Starlink is expected to bring SpaceX tens of billions of dollars in revenue, a portion of which may come from defense spending. On May 20, the U.S. Army signed a three-year contract to essentially test whether the system can be applied to military networks and enhance connectivity in the field.

Profits will reportedly go toward funding the company’s sweeping vision for putting humans on Mars. Among the first steps in that plan is the readying of Starship, a reusable hundred-person spacecraft and rocket that will travel to the moon and Mars. Its first passenger is currently set to be Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, whose scheduled flight around the moon in 2023 may finally usher in the era of commercialized space travel that writers and directors have been projecting on post–20th-century humanity for decades.

As for the effect the mega-constellation may have on astronomic research and a night sky as yet largely free of man-made visuals, SpaceX has been working with astronomers to address the issue. The most recent satellites sent up, for instance, are equipped with sunshades, described by Musk in a Tweet as being similar to sun visors used in cars. “It’s made of a special dark foam that’s extremely radio transparent, so as not to affect the phased array antennas,” he wrote.

Whether these measures will ultimately be enough to mitigate interference with scientific instruments and mask the presence of 42,000 satellites in orbit 340 miles from the Earth’s surface remains to be, well, seen.

As one listserv member from Bozeman, Montana, noted after the town’s close encounter with Starlink: “Frankly, I would have preferred the aliens!”

–  By Korena Di Roma Howley

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