FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – A new kind of high-speed internet is coming to Tuba City on the Navajo Nation, teleported from space by so-called “satellite constellations.”
This technology can provide much needed Internet access in rural areas. But that comes with a dilemma.
The new satellites are so bright and so numerous that astronomers are worried about the future of the night sky.
A few years ago, a public educator named Victoria Girgis was showing a group of visitors on a tour of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.
They were looking at a group of galaxies through a telescope.
âWe were all looking at the sky of course because it was outside, and that’s what you do in an observatory, you look at the night sky,â Girgis said.
Then she noticed something.
“Points were moving in the sky and they were all following each other in line,” recalls Girgis.
Girgis rushed to the telescope and took a photo, which would go viral on the internet. It captured the very first launch of 60 Starlink satellites.
âYou couldn’t see any of the galaxies anymore, you could just see these bright diagonal lines crossing the screen,â Girgis said.
To many astronomers, this photo was a red flag that âsatellite constellationsâ could be a problem.
Jeff Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory, said that âeveryone has been taken aback by the brightness of the satellites. Including SpaceX, they were also a little taken aback by their brightness. “
Hall and other astronomers have worked with the company SpaceX to try to find solutions.
Once the satellites reach their final orbit, they’re right on the edge of human vision, “but for a major research telescope that’s blindingly bright, even a small research telescope,” Hall said.
And there are so many. One hundred thousand new satellites are collectively planned by companies like SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb.
Their intention is to bring the Internet to underserved rural areas like the Navajo Nation; a goal that has taken on a new urgency since the pandemic.
“We have so many rural citizens … spread out in so many different areas, there are no other opportunities,” Coconino County spokesman Matt Fowler said. “You can’t push microwaves in some of these areas, you can’t use fiber or copper or any other infrastructure, so really (Starlink) is the only option.”
More than half of Navajo Nation communities lack broadband access, a flagrant injustice and health risk during a pandemic when students couldn’t log into online classes and people couldn’t could not apply for jobs from home.
But in Tuba City, 45 homes now have Internet thanks to a pilot program with Starlink. The houses were chosen because the teachers, students and first responders live there.
âThe very first night we actually put the equipment on the ground in the homes,â said Fowler. âWe have received many phone calls from very emotional and crying people. “
That’s the dilemma: How do you provide the desperately needed Internet in rural areas while protecting the night sky?
SpaceX is trying to darken its satellites, and Amazon will put its constellation in low orbit to keep it out of the sun for most of the night. These are voluntary actions of companies, not mandated.
John Barentine of the International Dark Sky Association said there aren’t many rules to regulate space.
âThe heart of this policy dates back to a time when the concern was who was going to go to the moon first, was it the United States or the Soviets?â Said Barentine, referring to the treaty on the outer space signed in 1967 when only a few dozen satellites were successfully put into orbit.
The growing number of satellites, said Barentine, “puts pressure on this need to define more clearly roles and responsibilities with regard to the management of this sense of orbital space as a common good that belongs to all of us. “.
One research activity that may be affected by satellite constellations is the search for asteroids that pose a threat to Earth.
But Barentine also sees philosophical reasons for protecting the night sky.
âThere is a desire, there is a feeling of connection to the cosmos that is deeply rooted in us whether we are consciously thinking about it or not,â he said.
Copyright 2021 The Associated press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.