I look up and notice a bright satellite moving across the sky, almost certainly a Starlink, since they now almost form half of the nearly 4,000 operational satellites and they are extremely bright. I take a deep breath and think carefully about how to discuss the substantial cost that we will all have to pay for Internet Starlink.
I don’t blame my neighbors for changing. Here, as in many rural areas of North America, there is no great internet options, and with many people working and taking home classes during the pandemic, anything that makes life easier is immediately accepted.
But I know exactly how high that cost could be. My paper, in The astronomical journal, at predictions of what the night sky will look like if satellite companies follow through on their current plans. I also know that due to the geometry of the sunlight and the orbits that have been chosen, 50 degrees north, where I live, will be the hardest hit part of the world.
Without regulation, I know that in the near future, one point out of 15 you can see relentlessly crawling satellites in the sky, not stars. It will be devastating for astronomical research and will completely change the night sky around the world.
The future is too, too bright
In order to determine how much the night sky will be affected by reflected sunlight from predicted satellite mega-stellations, we constructed a open source computer model to predict the brightness of satellites seen from different places on Earth, at different times of the night, at different seasons. We also built a simple web application based on this simulation.
Our model uses 65,000 satellites in orbits deposited by four mega-constellation companies: SpaceX Starlink and Amazon Kuiper (United States), OneWeb (United Kingdom) and StarNet / GW (China). We calibrated our simulation to match Starlink satellite telescope measurements, because they are by far the most numerous.
Starlink has so far made progress in upgrading its satellites since its first launch, but most are. still visible to the naked eye.
Our simulations show that from all over the world, in every season, there will be tens to hundreds of satellites visible for at least an hour before sunrise and after sunset. Right now, it’s relatively easy to escape urban light pollution for dark skies by camping or visiting your cabin, but our simulations show that you can’t escape this new satellite light pollution anywhere on Earth. even at the North Pole.
The most severely affected places on Earth will be 50 degrees north and south, near cities like London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Kiev, Vancouver, Calgary and my own home. At the summer solstice, from these latitudes, there will be nearly 200 satellites visible to the naked eye all night.
I study the orbital dynamics of the Kuiper belt, a belt of small bodies beyond Neptune. My research is based on long exposure wide field imaging to discover and track down these little bodies to learn more about the history of our solar system.
The telescope observations that are essential for learning more about our universe are about to get much, much harder due to the unregulated development of space.
Astronomers create mitigation strategies, but they will take time and effort that should be paid for by the mega-constellation companies.
Unknown environmental costs
Starlink Internet may seem cheaper than other rural options, but that’s because many costs are unloaded. An immediate cost is atmospheric pollution hundreds of rocket launches needed to build and maintain this system.
Each satellite deployment throws used rocket bodies and other debris into an already crowded low-earth orbit, increasing risk of collision. Some of this space debris will eventually fall back to Earth, and parts of the globe with the highest densities of air satellites will also be the most likely to be literally impacted.
Starlink plans to replace each of the 42,000 satellites after five years of operation, which will require desorbing an average of 25 satellites per day, or about six tonnes of equipment. The mass of these satellites will not disappear – it will be deposited in the upper atmosphere. Since satellites primarily consist of aluminum alloys, they can form alumina particles when they vaporize in the upper atmosphere, potentially destroying ozone and causing global temperature changes.
This has not yet been studied in depth because low Earth orbit is currently not subject to any environmental regulations.
Regulate the sky
Right now Low Earth Orbit, where all of these satellites are supposed to operate, is almost completely unregulated. There are no rules regarding light pollution, air pollution from launches, air pollution from re-entry or collisions between satellites.
But companies are now launching satellites at a breakneck pace, and the damage they are causing to the night sky, atmosphere and low Earth orbit security will not be reversed even if the operators go bankrupt.
There is no doubt that rural and remote Internet users in many places have been left behind by the development of Internet infrastructure. But there are plenty of other internet delivery options out there that won’t come with such extreme costs.
We cannot accept the overall loss of access to the night sky, which we have been able to see and connect with for as long as we are humans.
With cooperation instead of competition between satellite companies, we could have a lot less in orbit. By changing the design of the satellites, they could be made much weaker, having less impact on the night sky. We shouldn’t have to choose between astronomy and the Internet.
But without regulations requiring these changes, nor strong consumer pressure to indicate the importance of the night sky, our view of the stars will soon be changed forever. DM / ML
Samantha Lawler is Assistant Professor of Astronomy at the University of Regina.