The beauty of the night sky has inspired generation after generation from the dawn of recorded history and now, that vista, the essence of that inspiration, is under direct threat!
Many famous poets, authors, scientists and philosophers have written about the stars, the universe and the night sky above and, sadly, what is absent in this technological age is an appreciation for its transcendent beauty; gone is the desire to look up in humility, to appreciate our place in this magnificent cosmos; I would like to open this piece with several quotes from them.
The famous American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson penned this in 1836 in his work “Nature”
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”
The great Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg reminded us that
The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things which lifts human life a little above the level of farce and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.
The great English Poet Sarah Williams from her work “The Old Astronomer to his Pupil” included in her Twilight Hours: A Legacy of Verse, published in late 1868
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.
And this, from an unknown author
“We, all of us, bound by this common origin, composed of elements forged in the nuclear cauldrons of long-dead stars, look up at the stars and, in humility, connect with each other, fellow travelers on this magnificent blue oasis”
Space is now seen as a commodity to be exploited and leveraged for gain rather than regarded as the province of all humanity, a gift to all of us from nature and the universe. This obsession to expand and grow at all cost is one of the cornerstones of Neolibearlism and, with this story, we see that its ugly tentacles are now reaching out from the surface of the planet towards the stars -literally expanding out into the limitless void above.
As a partial backstory to this -and we’re going to come back to this point, Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been on the receiving end of billions of dollars of federal subsidies. A question arises, why is the United States Government pumping billions of Federal dollars into a private spacefaring enterprise when this country already has a public space agency: NASA? Couldn’t that public money be spent creating great new jobs, new careers, hiring new engineers and scientists for NASA, for the public’s benefit? The short answer, this has Neoliberalism written all over it, the rush to privatize everything, using public money to finance new private projects, leaving the public on the hook if the private project fails. And then there’s always the quid-pro-quo, the something for something. What is SpaceX (and Musk’s other companies, such as Tesla) agreeing to in return?
Back on February 22 of last year, SpaceX successfully tested TinTan A and B, precursor test satellites to Starlink, placed in low earth orbit as a proof of concept, in principle, Starlink’s basic premise, whether broadband internet service via satellite is feasible or practicable. The test was deemed a success and thus the company began preparations in earnest for the first phase of the project.
On May 23 of this year, 60 Starlink communication satellites aboard a Falcon 9 rocket were boosted to an initial low-earth orbit and, contrary to Musk’s assertion that they will only be visible briefly after sunset or before sunrise, their effect can be clearly seen in the image from Lowell Observatory. This image was part of a series of images obtained to monitor the light curve of a recently discovered supernova in the lenticular galaxy NGC 5353, SN2019ein. Already, the satellites have interfered with valid research.
Imagine Adding an Additional 12,000 Satellites to This!
The region above our planet is already polluted with thousands of satellites, some functional, some not and, at a minimum, even 5,000 more is 4,000 too many. The plan is to put upwards of 12,000 satellites in orbit! Some amateur astronomers have complained that the satellites will hinder or impair their ability to image the night sky. While this is a valid complaint, it misses the much larger point!
This isn’t about the Starlink satellites ruining their images of the Virgo cluster of galaxies or Messier-8, it’s about forever altering the character of the night sky! Looking to the stars has inspired mankind for millennia, for countless generations, for thousands of years, with the Greeks, the Babylonians, the Persians looking up, attempting to understand what they saw, to learn about their origins, the place from whence they came, its what gives meaning to our existence! This project, if allowed to come to fruition will forever sully the view that leaves one in breathtaking awe of nature’s majesty, the canopy of millions of beautiful points of light, so distant, yet so clear, beckoning.
The dead husk of Neoliberalism, of corporate profits and greed, the fixation with growth at any price, is what’s driving Musk and SpaceX. Billionaires, contrary to the fiction they would like you to believe, didn’t get to where they are by some ascent to a greater good, to lift up the poor and underserved.
This is the province of all humanity and the UN should have been consulted or, at the very least, the signatories to the 1967 Space-use treaty should have been consulted.
Outer Space Treaty of 1967
Article I, point 1 of the treaty is quite clear regarding the use of space as it shall be the province of all mankind. The image from Lowell Observatory (above) clearly illustrates that the launch of Starlink’s first 60 satellites is in breach of points 2 and 3
- The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.
- Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.
- There shall be freedom of scientific investigation in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and States shall facilitate and encourage international co-operation in such investigation.
Space belongs to all humankind, not to any single government or country and is not the province of some petulant billionaire with an overactive imagination, ostensibly to provide broadband service to underserved regions of the globe. Exactly how is the downlink supposed to work with a mobile phone or laptop out in the brush? No, there’s a lot more to this than we’re being told and with Trump’s FCC and Ajit Pai, anything is possible. To be clear, that this project is being launched during Trump’s presidency is no accident, damn the regulations and oversight! It tops the short list of really bad ideas!
Regarding the initial phase of this project and the launch of the first 60 satellites, it remains to be seen what the final brightness of these satellites will be and what impact they will ultimately have on observations globally. Aside from spoiling the aesthetic beauty and majesty of the night sky for all mankind, large international and professional collaborations, observatories and universities with deep financial and professional investments will be drastically affected if Musk’s project is allowed to fully come to fruition. Aside from existing observatories and installations with their networks of astronomers, researchers and scientists, new observatories are slated to come online over the next decade; the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) is scheduled to go online in late 2022, the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea in Hawaii is scheduled for the mid 2020s, the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) for mid 2025 and the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (EELT), also scheduled for the mid-2025 time frame.
Policy Position Statements from
The American Astronomical Society (AAS)
On June 8th, at the 234th AAS meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, the AAS Board of Trustees adopted the following position statement on satellite constellations:
The American Astronomical Society notes with concern the impending deployment of very large constellations of satellites into Earth orbit. The number of such satellites is projected to grow into the tens of thousands over the next several years, creating the potential for substantial adverse impacts to ground- and space-based astronomy. These impacts could include significant disruption of optical and near-infrared observations by direct detection of satellites in reflected and emitted light; contamination of radio astronomical observations by electromagnetic radiation in satellite communication bands; and collision with space-based observatories.
The AAS recognizes that outer space is an increasingly available resource with many possible uses. However, the potential for multiple large satellite constellations to adversely affect both each other and the study of the cosmos is becoming increasingly apparent, both in low Earth orbit and beyond.
The AAS is actively working to assess the impacts on astronomy of large satellite constellations before their numbers rise further. Only with thorough and quantitative understanding can we properly assess the risks and identify appropriate mitigating actions. The AAS desires that this be a collaborative effort among its members, other scientific societies, and other space stakeholders including private companies. The AAS will support and facilitate the work by relevant parties to understand fully and minimize the impact of large satellite constellations on ground- and space-based astronomy.
Full statement: https://aas.org/media/press-releases/aas-issues-position-statement-satellite-constellations
The International Astronomical Union (IAU)
Over the past decades, considerable effort has gone into designing, building, and deploying satellites for many important purposes. Recently networks, known as satellite constellations, have been deployed and are planned in ever greater numbers in mainly low-Earth orbits for a variety of purposes, including providing communication services to underserved or remote areas . Until this year, the number of such satellites was below 200, but that number is now increasing rapidly, with plans to deploy potentially tens of thousands of them. In that event, satellite constellations will soon outnumber all previously launched satellites.
Full statement: https://iau.org/news/announcements/detail/ann19035/
International Dark Sky Association (IDA)
Tucson, AZ – On May 23, 2019, the spacecraft company, SpaceX launched a group of sixty satellites into low Earth orbit (LEO). Due to their reflective solar panels and other metal surfaces, the satellites are visible to the naked eye at night. In the days since they were launched, sightings have been reported all around the world. The visibility of the satellites, combined with a rapid increase in the number of satellites in LEO has caused concern in the astronomy and stargazing communities. Questions about the impact of this newly deployed technology are rippling through the natural nighttime conservation network.
To date, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has already approved the operation of more than 7,000 SpaceX satellites in low Earth orbit. At least three other companies have expressed interest in launching large groups of similar new satellites, which are intended to provide reliable broadband internet service to people all over the world. These plans could easily lead to tens of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit.
The rapid increase in the number of satellite groups poses an emerging threat to the natural nighttime environment and our heritage of dark skies, which the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) has worked to protect since 1988. We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky on nocturnal wildlife, human heritage, or our collective ability to study the cosmos.
Some early reports have caused concern. James Lowenthal, a professor of astronomy at Smith College, was training undergraduate students for a summer astronomy outreach internship in New Hampshire when the SpaceX satellite grouping crossed their path in the night sky. “We were gathered around the telescope when one of them shouted, ‘WHAT is THAT?’” he tells IDA. Lowenthal calls the satellites a “shocking and devastating sight.”
Full statement: https://www.darksky.org/starlink-response/
In addition to altering the visual and aesthetic character of the night sky, the proposed frequency bands Starlink would employ have potential impacts to radio astronomy, to the future detriment of such worldwide collaborative projects as the recent imaging of a Black Hole’s Event Horizon 55 million light years away!
National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO)
Recent news reports of planned constellations of communication satellites, including the SpaceX Starlink proposal, have pointed out the potential impacts these systems may have on radio astronomy. For decades, the U.S. National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) and the Green Bank Observatory (GBO), in cooperation with the National Science Foundation, have worked to ensure that innovations in communications can advance while still preserving our ability to explore the Universe from Earth and conduct essential fundamental research through radio astronomy.
Most recently, the NRAO and GBO have been working directly with SpaceX to jointly analyze and minimize any potential impacts from their proposed Starlink system. These discussions have been fruitful and are providing valuable guidelines that could be considered by other such systems as well. To date, SpaceX has demonstrated their respect for our concerns and their support for astronomy. This includes an agreed-upon protocol to monitor impacts and address issues to NRAO’s current and future cutting-edge research facilities. We continue to monitor, analyze, and discuss the evolving parameters of the SpaceX system. Among the many proposals under consideration are defining exclusions zones and other mitigations around the National Science Foundation’s current radio astronomy facilities and the planned future antenna locations for the Next Generation Very Large Array. We also are working with our international partners, including the Square Kilometer Array, to present their concerns as well.
The United States continues to be a world leader in both radio astronomy research and engineering innovations. With the explosion of wireless technologies and the growing potential to lease portions of the electromagnetic spectrum for commercial purposes, it is essential that we safeguard our ability to perform basic research. Ground-based astronomy, whether optical or radio, has benefits that cannot be matched by even the most advanced space-based observatories. The recent imaging of a supermassive black hole is just one example of how ground-based radio astronomy facilities provide powerful and unique capabilities.
The NRAO looks forward to future discussions and is confident that the needs of both the research and communications communities can be met and preserved.
NRAO Director/AUI VP of Radio Astronomy Operations
Full statement: https://public.nrao.edu/news/nrao-statement-commsats/
Noteworthy are the comments in paragraph 2 of the NRAO’s statement
Most recently, the NRAO and GBO have been working directly with SpaceX to jointly analyze and minimize any potential impacts from their proposed Starlink system. These discussions have been fruitful and are providing valuable guidelines that could be considered by other such systems as well. To date, SpaceX has demonstrated their respect for our concerns and their support for astronomy.
Lets hope they follow through and remain honest in their commitment but, based on the proposed fully deployed array of 12,000 satellites and the 550 km final target altitude of the constellation array, there’s not much that can be done in terms of mitigating the effects of the satellites on the night sky. Currently, the 60 satellites launched on 23 May are at an initial altitude of 440 km; at the final target altitude of 550 km, any given satellite will be reduced in brightness by a factor of 1.6, not much of a change.
The next phase of Starlink has to be put on indefinite hold until a full global impact study can be conducted. It cannot be allowed to proceed until guarantees can be provided from SpaceX that they have an acceptable remedy that will protect the near-earth environment and the night sky, or if ever.
That this project was allowed to proceed as far as it did is unacceptable.
Note: vistas such as this are now under threat and if no action is taken, all generations henceforth would be deprived of the unadulterated beauty of the night sky.
A video of SpaceX Starlink satellites as viewed from the Netherlands, May 24, 2019.
Video credit: Marco Langbroek
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