With the launch of another 60 satellites on February 17, SpaceX has made yet another installment on its Starlink constellation, bringing the current total to 300. This is already the third Starlink launch this year, confirming SpaceX’s ability and intention to maintain a high launch cadence until the full constellation of more than 12,000 satellites is in place. All to fulfill its promise of a brighter future with fast universal internet access. Once deployed such a constellation will dwarf the current total of about 2,000 active satellites currently in orbit.
And Starlink is only one of several such megaconstellations in the works. Artificial satellites are nothing new to astronomers, but the first Starlink satellites are brighter than 99 percent of all other current satellites, and their projected numbers means that the likelihood of one crossing our field of view while taking an image is quite high near sunset or sunrise.
Forever banning the digital divide from planet Earth is a noble goal for humanity, but connectivity via megaconstellations comes at a price. My fellow astronomers and I are very concerned with the impact these large satellite constellations will have on ground-based observations, which have led more than 1,800 of us to sign a petition calling for governments to protect the night sky.
It isn’t just astronomers who should be worried. The current crop of Starlink satellites are also easily visible to the naked eye in a moderately dark sky, even at their operating altitude of 550 km. Once this satellite constellation is fully deployed, there will be over 100 moving points of light in the night sky within a couple of hours of sunrise and sunset, from any point on the planet. There will be more of them than the brightest stars we can see—the same stars used to delineate the ancient constellations. Starlink alone will fundamentally change the majestic appearance of the dark sky for everyone on the planet.
Given the visual impact of large satellite constellations, it has been pointed out that the Federal Communication Commission’s working assumption that satellites have zero impact on the environment could be challenged in court. Even if such a challenge were successful, however, the FCC has authority in only the U.S. Could similar arguments be used at the international level? A paper accompanying the astronomer’s petition argues that it could.
In response SpaceX has promised to address the visibility problem with experimental coatings—essentially painting them black—but in the meantime their aggressive launch schedule remains unchanged. However, the architecture of these satellites already minimizes their visibility, as their illuminated surface is mostly just the solar panel—exactly the part you can’t paint over.
Visibility has never been an issue for satellite operators, as no regulations exist governing how bright a satellite can be, let alone thousands of them together. Currently low Earth orbit is a laissez-faire heaven where a megaconstellation could literally be used to write “Drink Coke!” across the sky for all to see.
I’ve heard the rebuttals “So what?” and “A small price to pay for progress,” and I can almost understand: How can one appreciate what they are about to lose if they’ve never seen it?
Until now the dark night sky, available to any with the courage to turn off the lights, needed no protection. Beyond human reach, it was our unobstructed window on the universe, a universe unreachable and unchangeable. The transcendent beauty of a star-filled sky reminds us, as it did our ancestors, that we and our problems are small, and that our meaningfulness may finally lie just in our ability to recognize and admire the wonder and beauty of a universe larger than us, yet of which we are a part. Nothing has meaning without context and, since the dawn of our species, our common context was the heavens above us. Humanity is a mix of cultures born in diverse places and with diverse histories, but all of these peoples have painted their stories on the same canvas, pinning their value-laden myths on the same star-studded celestial dome.
Are we sure that we are about to lose only the chance of a beautiful view in exchange for a modern convenience? Or are we all about to become blind to something that has intangibly bound us together, a common experience that has played its part in making us one human family? I believe the beauty of a dark sky is still able to teach, to any who are willing to look, a useful lesson about who we are, and we would be wise not to lose it.
UNESCO maintains a registry of World Heritage sites, places of unique and outstanding cultural and/or natural value to humanity, and is dedicated to their preservation. Currently the list of UNESCO sites includes 1,121 “properties,” and some of these, such as the Namib Sand Sea and the newly designated Risco Caido of Gran Canaria, even specifically mention their view of the night sky as a defining characteristic making them worthy of being a World Heritage site. Unfortunately, under the World Heritage Convention, the UNESCO registry is by construction limited to specific territories, while the sky is attached to no place in particular. So, while UNESCO has declared the sky as being part of humanity’s universal heritage, it seems that this unique quality that makes it important to humanity excludes it from being considered worthy of protection.
Might the U.N. or UNESCO be able to “think out of the box” to declare the dark night sky a patrimony of humanity that merits protection? Will the U.N. recognize, before it is too late, the woeful need to establish a common set of standards for regulating the use of low Earth orbit to assure both access to space for all countries as well as everyone’s right to be able to view an unpolluted dark sky?
The sky belongs to no one and to all, and the dark sky should be recognized as a common good for all of humanity, one that we all should have a right to see and contemplate, be inspired by and learn from, a patrimony of humanity that has played a part in forming us and that should be protected. Use of space as a common resource, by satellite operators in particular, should not destroy our only window on the universe.
For me, as a youth growing up in Montana, it was a game to be the first to find a moving satellite among the host of stars in the night sky, a game that could last up to a half an hour. Soon it will be a game to be able to recognize the constellations behind a swarm of moving points of light. I love astronomy, and understand and share the concern of my colleagues, but the impact of megaconstellations goes far beyond astronomy. Astronomy will survive. I am much more concerned that collectively we are about to lose that which inspired me to become an astronomer.