Starlink Poses an Existential Threat to Ground-Based Astronomy

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Image from the Blanca 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO), 333 second-exposure image by astronomers Clara Martínez-Vázquez and Cliff Johnson. The Image contains at least 19 streaks created by the second batch of Starlink satellites launched November 2019. Image via WikiMedia Commons

Opinion by James Daly, Ph.D, Astronomer, Curator and Author

We’ve written extensively on this subject as it is impossible to overstate the threat to ground-based Astronomy this project poses and have chronicled the various professional facilities and how they will be effected:

#SpaceX #Starlink Project Tops Shortlist Of Really Bad Ideas
#Starlink (#SpaceX) Update and It’s Not Good News for #Astronomers
#SpaceX #Starlink New Update, 16 April, 2020

The term “Existential” derives from the Latin verb “exsistere“, meaning “to exist, to appear or to emerge.” Used in this context, the very existence of meaningful ground-based astronomy, the oldest of the natural sciences, is under direct threat with the rapid and continued deployment of the Starlink Mega Constellation.

Since the dawn of history, the beauty of the night sky was and will forever remain, unparalleled. There is no man-made object, no artificial light, no work of art, no structure, nothing that can compare with the night sky on a clear, dark, moonless night.

I still remember visiting Lake Winnipesaukee on a family vacation in the summer of 1972. The rural New Hampshire lake and campsite was especially suited to the unfettered view of the night sky, many kilometers from the nearest population centers.

To this day, I remember that view of the summer sky so long ago. As the campfire slowly burned out, slowly fading to a few bright embers, I can remember picking up my 7×50 binoculars and walking down to the lake-shore. Looking up as my eyes adjusted to the low-light level, the breath left my lungs as I was overcome with awe at the summer milky way, arching south towards Sagittarius and the Galactic Center as it was reflected in the lake, so much so, it was hard to tell where the sky ended and the reflection began. As the Milky Way cast a distinct shadow behind me, the iconic keystone of Hercules high overhead at the zenith was set against a velvet-black background. This was a singular experience that has remained with me ever since, making an indelible mark on my memory and my soul.

That was 1972 and much has changed since then. Large urban centers are overcome with artificial lighting of all sorts, from streetlights and billboards, to neon signs and “security” lighting. The light pollution from these sprawling cities can be seen for hundreds of kilometers for the largest cities such as New York or Los Angeles. Astronomers, both amateur and professional, have long-since given up trying to do any meaningful astronomy from the cities aside from observations of the moon or the planets. The fall-back plan of “driving out to the country” or “out to the desert” for the amateur or the pristine sky available at a major astronomical facility high atop a mountain or desert plateau for the professional have always been available – hold this thought.

In relating the beauty of the unspoiled night sky, the great English Poet and Novelist, Sarah Williams, describes the wisdom and council an old Astronomer imparts to his student in her famous poem The Old Astronomer. An excerpt from the work describes as a metaphor how the beauty of the night sky can overcome any fear of the dark and whatever “darkness” or “night” means to the reader:

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.

Perhaps Ralph Waldo Emerson said it the best:

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.

As it was for me, seeing the sky as it should be, as it has been seen since recorded history, is inspirational and is our birthright and is something that has been largely stolen from many countless individuals. If you weren’t fortunate enough to travel out to the country or out to the desert, to look up and see the stars, then you will never know this beauty. There are so many young people today who have been deprived of this- who have never really seen the stars and this is at the root cause of so much ambivalence and the main reason why we have this “Starlink” problem. Over multiple generations, light pollution has largely deprived whole segments of the population of that singular experience, that inspirational view of the sky, the one thing that could set so many on a different, life-long path.

The Internet and the obsession with all forms of technology from the latest mobile handsets and computers to the X-Box and the accompanying video games, VR systems, the latest LED or LCD televisions or AI and how many of these people, in a very real sense, live in a “virtual reality”. This is, at its core, an attempt to fill a void, a void that will never be filled with any of this. None of it is inspirational and, at the very least, is a waste of time and, at the worst, is self-destructive. The loss of privacy not withstanding, this obsession with the latest technology results in the loss of any meaningful human interaction.

Techies of all stripes are falling all over themselves with the latest batch of 60 satellites launched on Friday, August 7th, bringing the total number deployed Starlink satellites to 597. As the company launched its early trial beta, so many simply can’t wait to get their starter kits. Eight out of ten “YouTubers” act like they just discovered that Santa Claus is real and that he left them all the shiny new toys they ever wanted under their Christmas trees; sadly, there are only a few who appreciate the magnitude of what is at stake. In speaking to The New York Times, Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics states quite clearly:

“There is a point at which it makes ground-based astronomy impossible to do.” “If thousands more of these satellites are launched it will look as if the whole sky is crawling with stars.” It is argued that this “potentially threatens the science of astronomy itself.”

This article’s featured image at the top of the page is a 5-minute, 33 second exposure from the 4 meter Blanca Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). The “streaks” that “photobombed” the image were from 19 of the batch of 60 Starlink satellites launched a week earlier, back in November of last year (2019). From a purely scientific standpoint, based on what was being observed at the time, the image may hold some value; from a purely esthetic point of view, it’s useless. Telescope time is precious -and expensive, especially when the observer, usually a university professor with a budget representing a major university or a professional astronomer and their respective team(s), are granted access to a 4 meter telescope.

It’s important to point out and underscores my use of the term “Existential Threat“, this image was ruined -and possibly the entire observing program, when the total number of Starlink satellites deployed at the time was only 120. Musk and SpaceX have requested a license for 30,000 more satellites in addition to the existing license for 12,000 recently granted, bringing the possible deployment total to 42,000 if the project, in its current form, is brought to fruition! This is truly frightening!

A question begs asking, did Elon Musk and SpaceX get permission from the United Nations or, at at the very least, the preponderance of all the nations of the world, to launch this project? Or did he or SpaceX simply apply to the FCC, receive their stamp of approval and move on? Oh yes, and then there’s the 1967 Space Treaty which the United States is a signatory to and, since SpaceX is an American corporation, they are bound by the terms of the treaty.

Outer Space Treaty of 1967

Article I, section 1 of the treaty is quite clear regarding the use of space as it shall be the province of all mankind. That Musk and SpaceX did not consult the UN or any other nation state and that he proceeded unilaterally with only FCC approval constitutes a breach of Article 1, section 3 within the broad context of this discussion: his Starlink satellite constellation infringes on the rights of all nation states, indeed on all humankind, to enjoy unfettered access to the sky.

Article I

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 and purview of some petulant billionaire with an overactive imagination, ostensibly to provide broadband service to under-served regions of the globe. To be clear, that this project is being launched during the current administration is no accident, damn the regulations and oversight!

It should be pointed out that Musk and SpaceX are engaged in talks with the global Astronomical Community including the American Astronomical Society, the International Astronomical Union and the International Dark Sky Association, all of whom have issued policy statements.

AAS Policy Statement (10 June, 2019)
IAU Policy Statement (3 June, 2019)
IDA Policy Statement (29 May, 2019)

Perhaps some solution will emerge from these talks: with Friday’s launch, all 60 Starlink satellites deployed are outfitted with the sunshade visor that was tested on a single satellite on the 4 June 2020 launch. Let’s see if their mitigation attempts are successful.

There is still time to put the brakes on an irreversible outcome: the complete loss of the night sky for generations to come. Musk’s satellites will be ubiquitous and the astronomer’s fall-back plan will no longer be a viable option anywhere on the planet! If SpaceX, and now Amazon and Facebook, are allowed to proceed with their planned rollouts unabated and unchallenged, the intrinsic character of the night-sky will be forever altered and the experience I had so long ago in 1972 will no longer be possible.

A quick, interactive web-based version of Stellarium is available here Tonight's Sky. When you launch the application, it defaults to north-facing and your location (on mobile and desktop).

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