SpaceX founder Elon Musk during a T-Mobile and SpaceX joint event on August 25, 2022 in Boca Chica Beach, Texas. The two companies announced plans to work together to provide T-Mobile cellular service using Starlink satellites. Credit - Michael Gonzalez-Getty Images
Elon Musk is an expert at capturing people’s attention, and these days, the headlines are following Musk’s takeover of Twitter and the ensuing chaos as he tries to reshape the platform in the way he believes it should be run. But in the process, we shouldn’t forget what else he’s up to, especially as one of his endeavors threatens to alter our relationship to the night sky itself: Starlink.
If you’ve heard of Starlink before, it’s probably in the news about the war in Ukraine, where the government and army have been using it to stay connected. Starlink is a satellite internet service operated by Musk’s space company, SpaceX, that currently has over 3,000 satellites in low Earth orbit that beam the signal back to users’ receiver dishes. Its promise lies in its potential to extend coverage to rural areas and to the Global South, but there are serious questions about whether that will be the ultimate use case.
When the first few Starlink satellites were launched, it was a novelty to spot them, but that quickly changed as their numbers multiplied into the hundreds and thousands. Consider this: since the Soviet Union sent up its first Sputnik satellite in 1957, about 13,600 satellites have been launched into orbit by state and private entities, of which about 6,700 are still active. SpaceX already controls nearly half of them and is pushing for many more. It has plans to deploy 12,000 satellites by 2026, but that could eventually expand to a total of 42,000.
After the first few dozen were sent into orbit, astronomers started to report a problem: Starlink satellites were messing with the images that scientists were taking of space. When the satellites crossed the area being captured by their telescopes, they would leave bright lines across the image, making large parts of it unusable. As more Starlink satellites are launched, that problem will get far worse, and it won’t just affect astronomers; regular people are already spotting the satellites in the skies above us, especially around dusk and dawn when they’re most likely to capture the glare of the sun. Starlink satellites are launched into low Earth orbit, making them easier to detect, and are released in a line, causing the series of streaks across images of space. Speaking to Vox, astronomer and physicist Tony Tyson said that once there are tens of thousands, “you’ll see the sky crawling.”
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While these effects will be global, they will be more noticeable in some parts of the world than others. Residents of urban areas will already be familiar with light pollution: Because of all the lights that are on at night to illuminate roads, businesses, and public places, we can see far fewer of the stars above us. All of these satellites threaten to make that even worse, especially in parts of the world where the skies are still dark and awash in the cosmic brilliance that can’t be seen from major cities. As the number of satellites rises, they reflect more of the sun’s rays into the atmosphere, increasing the amount of light pollution and creating a new “skyglow” that scientists say further reduces the number of stars we can see, with consequences for humans and animals alike.
Light pollution has already affected animals around the world, and increasing it threatens to disrupt the migratory routes of some bird species, especially since SpaceX’s existing efforts to reduce the reflectivity of its satellites have only been marginally successful. But there’s a deeper problem here. Humans have long had a connection to the sky and the stars above, whether it’s just to gaze up in wonder and contemplation or to guide their societies, and Starlink’s satellites could sever that too.
Indigenous peoples have been speaking out about what all these satellites are doing to the night sky, calling attention to what some refer to as a form of “astrocolonialism” as the proliferation of these satellites continues the erosion of their traditions and humans’ broader connection to the natural world. Jeff Doctor, a Cayuga from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory and an impact strategist for Animikii, told Vice that it’s what we’ve come to expect from the tech industry: “Tech culture has to think in terms of history, place, lands, people—all of these kinds of things—and it just doesn’t.” That naturally presents a bigger question about power, and one that’s very relevant to discussions about Elon Musk.
For the last decade, Musk has been framed as a climate savior and the builder of our collective future. His flaws and abuses of power were to be laughed off or downplayed in service of the bigger rewards he claimed to offer, from vehicle automation to Mars colonization. But in the past few years it’s become all too clear that his visionary status was overblown as he’s failed to deliver on his promises and the scandals surrounding him have escalated. Musk has charged forward with his vision for humanity regardless of the collateral damage, whether it’s people being killed in Autopilot crashes, a nature reserve in jeopardy for his rocketry ambitions, or altering what eight billion people see when they look up to the heavens.
Consider Musk’s recent gambit to use Starlink’s Ukraine service as a bargaining chip. Early in the war, the US military shipped 20,000 Starlink receiver kits to Ukraine, letting Musk take the credit even though the US and other Western governments picked up a sizeable chunk of the tab. But after an argument on Twitter with Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andrij Melnyk, Musk threatened to cut off the service. That was until Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted that Musk was, “among the world’s top private donors supporting Ukraine.” The following morning, Musk announced he wouldn’t shut off the service. His ego had been adequately massaged.
When we consider the consequences, the night sky is ultimately just the tip of the iceberg. We could see more space debris falling from the sky, if not from the satellites, then from the rockets taking them to orbit. When the satellites reenter, they produce aluminium oxide, which has consequences like ozone depletion. And as more satellites go up, the chances of crash in orbit escalate. Starlink satellites already account for half of near misses between spacecraft, and both the European Space Agency and China have had issues with them. But if a crash happens with so many satellites up there, it could set off Kessler Syndrome: when a collision causes a snowball effect with debris striking other intact satellites and soon litters orbit with so much space debris it limits our ability to launch rockets into the future. If that happens, so much for the dream of Mars colonization.
There can be no denying that many parts of the U.S. and the world are underserved by broadband infrastructure, with speeds and connections that limit their access to everything offered online. However, satellite internet isn’t a silver bullet to solve that problem and many of the people without good connections right now would be far better served by public investment to build out fiber and 5G networks. But that doesn’t have the futuristic appeal of Starlink and is hard to hype up. Like in Ukraine and in Iran, Starlink might better serve the military and other niche applications, as became clear with the recent announcement of Starshield: SpaceX’s Starlink for the military.
For the past few years, we’ve been coming to terms with how overhyping the tech industry had social consequences, including things like social media misinformation and labor abuses. Luckily, those are problems we can address with regulation, but that’s much harder with Starlink and the satellite race Musk has kicked off. The Federal Communications Commission recently reorganized its Space division to “better support the needs of the growing satellite industry,” rather than question whether so many satellites should be launched in the first place—and that won’t cover the satellite constellations coming from Europe, China, and beyond. As public opinion continues to shift against Elon Musk, we need to think twice about the visions he’s been selling us, and that includes what goals we’re actually achieving by launching tens of thousands of additional satellites into orbit.