The night sky as we knew it

The great thing about industrious people is that things happen. I’m beginning to wonder if the bad thing about industrious people is the same. The night sky as we now know it is in the process of changing for good. I am talking about Starlink; Elon Musk’s fleet of satellites intended to revolutionize internet speed and access across the globe and ultimately finance his trip to Mars. In the begining of June 2020, when I write this bit, SpaceX has launched a total of 480 satellites in lower Earth orbit (eoPortal 2020). The plan is to continue to launch 60 new satellites every two weeks with their Falcon 9 rocket aiming for a total of 1500 satellites by the end of 2020 and up to 12,000 satellites by the mid-2020s. Currently they are applying for permission to launch an additional 30,000 (Sample 2020). Other companies, such as Amazon and OneWeb, are planning similar endevours (Rees 2019; Knapp 2020). To provide a point of reference for understanding how significant this change is, there are at the moment only 2000 satellites orbiting Earth in total (Wall 2020), most of which operating at a the much higher altitudes of about 36,000 km (Mosher 2020).   

The satellites SpaceX launches begin to orbit approximately 280 km above Earth. At this height, they are clearly visible to the naked eye because of Sun’s reflection in parts of the satellites incidentally acting as mirrors when set at a certain angle. Moving along a straight line they resemble a clear string of pearls moving across the night sky and are visible as long white lines across long aperture photos of the night sky. As the satellites reach their final destination at 550km altitude they will become less visible, SpaceX assures, but visible nevertheless and with 12,000 satellites distributed around Earth in cross hatching circular bands several will be visible in every part of the sky at any moment of time (Amos 2020). This concerns astronomers and stargazers alike who are acutely aware that this is just the beginning of an era where satellites will be launched in ever greater number into lower earth orbit.

Who gets to legislate and make decisions about commercial conduct in space? Apparently the Federal Communications Commission in the United States. But since satellites in lower earth orbit are not landlocked above North America I can’t help wondering about that practice. The Federal Communications Commission has been exempted since 1986 from conducting reviews of the environmental impact of the projects they approve despite the fact that other agencies, most notably NASA, must routinely do so (O’Callaghan 2020). Therefore individuals and organizations worried about the effects of the current and future presence of mega constellation in lower Earth orbit must lobby for new policy or rely on the ability for SpaceX to establish firm precedence for responsible behavior in space before other agents such as Amazon follow.

Thus the battle of the commons has been moved to the space in a very present way. While SpaceX continues to launch 60 satellites every two weeks they work with astronomers to mitigate the problems they cause to to astronomical equipment and to reduce the unexpected brightness of their satellites (Amos 2020). In a first attempt to reduce the reflection SpaceX have developed a dark coating, which reduced the brightness 55% (Grush 2020). Meanwhile part of the rationale behind the placement of satellites at 550km altitude was to mitigate another problem – that of space debris. As the atmosphere of the Earth becomes more populated by satellites it drastically increases risk of coalition. At 550 km a defunct satellite would slowly deorbit due to gravitational drag within a period of 25 years (Henry 2020) as opposed to a 1000 year time frame in the outer layers where satellites are currently deployed.

The Starlink business case is a very good example of an investment strategy that combines all the features of the new Silicon Valley spirit: Starlink/SpaceX/Elon Musk wants to do some good by expanding cheap and affordable broadband connectivity to all areas of Earth including areas currently deprived of internet access. They threaten to disrupt existing industries by taking a lead in the space industry and the internet business by providing satellite launching and satellite connections that are dramatically cheaper and much quicker than what competitors can offer. They get rich by tapping into the ever growing demand for increased internet speed in the financial centers where a fraction of a second makes a different investment-wise. Meanwhile, the ultimate aim of all of this is to raise money for a different venture, namely the colonization of Mars (Mann 2020).

Image: Martin Bernardi

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