Andy Lawrence, who happens to be a colleague, has just published a book called Losing the Sky. Andy also gave a brief presentation about it, which is what motivated me to write this post. The book is very reasonably priced and very easy to read. It’s about Starlink, the constellation of low Earth orbit satellites being launched by SpaceX. There are currently just over 1000 in orbit, with plans for 12000, and a possible extension to 42000. The goal is to provide high-speed internet with low latency.
As the image on the right illustrates, the issue is that (especially during the orbit raising phase) these satellites can be very prominent in astronomical images. Since there will be so many of them, this could have a very large impact. This is not only a problem for ground-based observations; even images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope have been impacted.
It’s also not only optical astronomy, radio astronomy may be even more severely impacted. Currently, most communication satellites are in geo-synchronous orbits. Consequently, radio observations can typically be planned to keep their transmissions out of the side-lobes. With this new constellation of low Earth orbit communication satellites, this may become essentially impossible, potentially ruining radio astronomy.
One concern with complaining about this, is that the stated goal is to provide internet to regions of the planet that don’t currently have decent access. This is clearly a worthy goal and so it can be tricky to object on the basis of how it will impact astronomical observations. There are, however, a few issues with this stated goal. One is that there are already solutions involving satellites on higher orbits, so it’s not clear that providing internet to under-served regions of the planet requires a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites. Also, the current price suggests that this may also currently be out of reach of many in these regions.
What seems more likely is that the motivation is to reduce the latency (the data transfer time) which will be very attractive to the financial sector. This will require a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites. So, the actual goal may not be quite as magnanimous as suggested.
As my colleague’s book suggests, this does seem to be another example of a tragedy of the commons. Some get to benefit from using the environment in a way that negatively impacts many others, who don’t get compensated for how they are impacted.
Even if we would benefit from high-speed, low-latency internet access across the globe, I do think there would still be merit to a process that assessess the impact of the proposed solution and that has some ability to influence, and potentially regulate, this kind of activity. We can’t keep ignoring the impact of how our activities influence the environment in which we all live, not only for fairness reasons, but because there is a cost to such activities that someone will eventually have to pay.