Star Wars is coming to life — and right now, the corporate Empire is winning the battle. We're referring, of course, to SpaceX's StarLink project, which plans to use a massive satellite array 340 miles (550 kilometers) above Earth to provide high-speed internet access to every corner of the planet. On August 7, 2020, a two-stage Falcon 9 rocket carrying 57 SpaceX Starlink satellites, along with two smaller BlackSky Global Earth-observation satellites, lifted off into space from NASA's Kennedy Space Center.
StarLink is a typically audacious project from Elon Musk's SpaceX, and it stands to benefit anyone who currently has an unsatisfactory internet service — or perhaps no service at all. Whether you're on a remote island or mountaintop, an Antarctic base or congested city, a pizza-box sized terminal will help you work or (watch cat videos) at lightning speed, via satellites — many, many satellites.
Not Everyone Is Thrilled
Yet, everyone from astronomers to physicists to dark-sky lovers are skeptical — if not horrified — at the thought of tens of thousands of low-orbit satellites streaking across the night sky. Other companies, like Amazon and Telesat, are hoping to emulate StarLink's model, meaning there could be as many as 50,000 satellites mostly for the purpose of internet service.
That's roughly double the number of satellites launched by humans in the previous six decades.
Thousands of astronomers have signed a petition hoping to slow the rate of satellite deployment. They fear the satellites' low orbit, paired with their tendency to reflect sunlight at certain times, are 99 percent brighter than the other objects in the night sky, and likely to impede our ability to peer into the universe.
"The StarLink satellites are relatively close to the Earth (only a few hundred kilometers high) and thus as they reflect sunlight they can appear quite bright," says Paul A. Delaney, a professor at York University in Toronto, via email. "Not so bright that you can see them with the naked eye but telescopes can see to the edge of the universe, so satellites close by are very easily seen."
He says that the large number of satellites means they'll appear in long-exposure images made with ground-based telescopes, compromising the data that is collected from such images. That means wasted time, wasted money and less data for research related to our universe. With 50,000 satellites to work around, exasperated astronomers could find themselves going supernova as their work stalls.
That's particularly true for astronomers who are pushing the limits of technology. They need wide, clear views to conduct their research.
"Imaging the sky to detect faint and distant objects is the bread and butter of modern astronomy," says Delaney. "Pushing the limits of what we can see and detect is the calling of modern astronomy. Thousands of satellites passing through the fields of view of telescopes will reduce the efficiency and effectiveness of our observations."
Delaney likens StarLink to someone plopping a high-intensity light onto your front lawn. You'd probably feel like you should have some input into that process — that's how astronomers feel about StarLink. There was no real warning regarding the impact it could have on their work, he says, and that's a direct reflection on the lack of regulatory oversight regarding space-related projects.
StarLink's engineers (and marketing team) are sensitive to the negative press regarding the project. They've assured researchers that they'll work with them to reduce any impact of StarLink, perhaps by routing the satellites around certain observatories at specific times. Engineers also tried to apply a dark coating to one series of satellites to reduce the effects — unfortunately, it didn't work as well as hoped.
"It is a step in the right direction but a little bit like an oncoming car at night switching their high beams to low," says Delaney. "Less dazzling for you, but the car lights are still easily seen. The 'darker' satellites will still be easily detected by large telescopes."
Some StarLink proponents might argue that astronomers can simply take another picture once the array has passed their field of view. But timing is everything — what if asteroid hunters miss clues to a potentially dangerous rock hurtling toward Earth because too many Bruce Willis fans thought it was more important to stream "Armageddon"?
"No one knows in advance all the information available in any given image," says Delaney. "Working with communication providers before they launch such missions would be very helpful."
Musk Hopes For a Multiplanetary Society
Astronomers have nothing against accessible high-speed internet. After all, it helps them conduct their research, share their results and advance collective human knowledge. They just don't want to sacrifice their insights to StarLink's commercial ambitions, even if Elon Musk is hoping it will help push humans toward a multiplanetary society.
They're also not the only ones concerned about StarLink. Anyone who has, or wants to put, a satellite in orbit now has to contend with the idea that Musk could have tens of thousands of his contraptions circling the Earth for years to come. It all sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie of the future — but it's happening right now, and it could impact generations of humans.
"Bottom line: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," says Delaney. "A lot of smart people can do great things if they work and plan together. Space is a part of our lives today so we need to use it smartly so everyone benefits."