We’ve sent objects into space that help us communicate and navigate in the modern world. But there is a price to be paid for the march of progress…
Soon Be Only a Fond Memory?
If you go outside at night, it may take your eyes half an hour to fully adapt to the dark. But then—if there’s no Moon— you can see a myriad of stars in the evening sky. How many of them are visible to the naked eye? Some estimates say 5,000 if there are no clouds and you’re far from city lights. The question is: for how much longer?
The CEO of the Spacex company, Elon Musk, has launched a project to put tens of thousands of satellites into orbit. When it’s complete, his Starlink system will increase the number of active satellites by more than tenfold. The advantage, according to Spacex, is access to the Internet for rural and underserved areas around the world. The disadvantage: Starlink satellites appear brighter than others because they are positioned in a lower orbit. A large number of these satellites in the night sky could look like a highway of moving lights obscuring the stars. And that’s only part of the problem…
Humankind has been aware of the stars from the very beginning. Early humans imagined that they outlined images in the sky, and they decided these constellations were gods who ought to be revered. The notion that something up there was looking out for them gave our ancient ancestors a sense of security. And once they’d realized that the stars were traveling in predictable paths, early humans got the feeling that there was order
in the universe. The stars later guided explorers on their journeys at night, assisting Columbus and Magellan, for example, as they discovered new worlds. Over the past 200,000 years, the starlit sky has helped make Homo sapiens what we are today. But soon an enormous new constellation—one of human devising—could outshine all the others, making them virtually invisible. And that grim projection of the future is not at all distant.
CONQUERING THE NIGHT SKY
On May 23, 2019, Spacex succeeded in deploying the first 60 of its Starlink satellites into orbit. By late 2020 the company was steadily launching 60 more at a time, once or twice a month, with the aim of providing near-global communications by 2022. Thus far Spacex has received approval for the launch of 12,000 Starlink satellites; it is seeking approval for 30,000 more, and competitors such as Amazon and Oneweb are racing just to keep up. As seen from Earth, Starlink satellites appear brighter than most because they’re in a lower orbit. That creates a huge problem for astronomers and amateur stargazers, who up until now only had to deal with light pollution emanating from cities (a problem that could largely be mitigated simply by avoiding urban areas). However these new satellites will produce stargazing problems all around the globe. As the host of bright artificial objects moves across the night sky, they could even obscure Venus, the planet that shines brightest on Earth, and also outshine the North Star.
Not much of the night sky is visible in big cities because light pollution obscures all but the brightest stars and planets. But the sunlight that is reflected off near-earth satellites is even brighter, especially in the hours after sunset and before sunrise as the final (or first) rays of the Sun are mirrored off the shiny surfaces of the devices. Soon they will outshine the familiar constellations we have been observing for tens of thousands of years. Some 6,000 satellites are now orbiting Earth, though only about 40% of them are still functional while the rest are space junk. But an estimated 1,000+ new ones are being launched every year, which means more than 14,000 satellites may well be in orbit by 2028. With Starlink’s constellation steadily growing and other companies planning to launch constellations of their own, space congestion will only be increasing from here on out.
INTERNET FOR EVERYONE EVERYWHERE
Most of the growth thus far is being driven by Spacex’s Starlink project. The company’s founder, Elon Musk, envisions launching a total of 42,000 satellites in order to provide Internet access to every region of the world, especially to areas that are currently underserved. The technology sounds as though it could have been devised by a science fiction author: A Spacex Falcon 9 rocket carries 60 satellites into orbit at a time, each roughly the size of a table and weighing about half a ton. Once they’re in orbit, each satellite deploys its highly reflective solar panels—a major source of the light pollution problem for stargazers.
In early 2020, as Spacex was getting ready to launch its eighth batch of Starlink satellites into orbit, Musk announced that starting with the ninth batch the company would equip the satellites with sunshades that would reduce their brightness. However it’s unclear if the change will make much practical difference.
Each Starlink satellite will use laser beams to connect and communicate with four others, and they will be able to beam data to the surface of the Earth at close to the speed of light. Musk says subscribers will connect to the service using a device he calls a phased-array antenna. “It looks like a thin, flat, round UFO on a stick,” he says, “or like a small- to medium-size pizza.” That would be small enough to put on the roof of a home or even on top of a car, and it would easily fit on ships, airplanes, and other large vehicles. According to Spacex filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the company has planned for around 1 million ground stations. Based on laser technology, the system will be far faster than fiber optic cables. In the vacuum of space, light moves about 47% faster than in even the fastest cables. The Starlink satellites also have the advantage of orbiting at a height of 340 miles, much
closer to Earth than the conventional communications satellites, which are located in a geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles above the equator. That distance causes more than half a second of lag—a noticeable delay in long-distance videoconferencing and voice calls made over the Internet. Starlink technology reduces that lag to mere milliseconds.
Starlink beta service was launched in October 2020 in select areas of the U.S. and Canada. This includes areas north of the 45th parallel, the line of latitude that stretches across the U.S. from northern Oregon in the west to central Maine in the east and passes through the northern states of the Midwest and northern borders of New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
So far, it includes 10 U.S. states and eight Canadian provinces. To remind potential customers that the service is still in its infancy, Spacex is calling it “Better Than Nothing Beta.” In the current configuration satellites cross the sky two or three times per night, and the system’s beta users are being told to expect some outages until the satellite constellation is fully built out. The cost of the service is a one-time equipment fee of $499 and then $99 per month. As the company continues to build out this system, Starlink’s Internet service is poised to become available all over the world. Private test results have shown an Internet connection speed of 100 Mbps with latency of only 20 milliseconds, and the service offers unlimited data. The good news for people living in rural areas is there’s no need for wiring or cable. Another advantage: Rural areas are sparsely populated, so there isn’t any danger that users might max out the satellite capacity, which remains a potential problem for those living in high-density urban areas.
CHAOS IN THE SKY
Giant constellations of near-earth satellites primarily pose a problem for astronomers and their research. In November of 2019, Northwestern University astronomer Cliff Johnson noticed a swarm of unfamiliar objects moving in the sky—19 of them over the course of five minutes. They were Starlink satellites launched a month earlier. “This could become the new normal,” he says. “If it’s going to be tens of thousands of satellites, that is no small deal!” He fears a future in which practically every observation is marred by satellite streaks. Tony Tyson, an astronomer and physicist at UC Davis, agrees: “When there are 50,000 satellites in the sky, every square degree will have something crawling in it. Instead of the universe, we’re going to see a haze of streaks.” Currently there are no regulations— nationally or internationally—to deal with the brightness of satellites. And that may need to change if we are to preserve the night sky and our ability to keep an eye on the cosmos.
Before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, space had been clean as a whistle as far as man-made objects were concerned. But not long after Sputnik 1 took to space, the U.S. gave the Soviet Union a run for its money, launching Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958. Since then a dozen countries have independently launched satellites into orbit, almost 10,000 in all. Sputnik 1 was at such a low altitude that atmospheric drag brought it down three months later, and many other satellites have met the same fate for the same reason. But thousands are expected to stay in orbit for decades or even centuries, posing a hazard to astronauts on the International Space Station and its expected successors as well as to one another. The first item of “space junk” was NASA’S Vanguard 1, which was launched farther into space than Explorer 1 to raise its odds of staying in orbit, but contact was lost in 1964 and it has been aimlessly circling the planet ever since then.
In addition to satellites, there are scores of spent rockets, countless bits and pieces of debris created by collisions or explosions, and objects accidentally dropped during space walks, including a camera, a glove, and a mirror. Adding to the growing amount of stuff in space is Beyond Burials, a company that will launch the remains of a loved one into orbit. The U.S. military currently tracks some 26,000 objects in Earth orbit, but the list only includes objects bigger than 4 inches, so the total is much higher. According to one estimate, there may be one hundred million bits of space debris larger than 1 millimeter.
A lot of the smaller space junk is created when orbiting objects collide. In 2009, American communications satellite Iridium 33 collided in space with its no-longer-functional Russian counterpart Kosmos 2251. Both had shattered into thousands of pieces.
Two years earlier, China deliberately destroyed its Fengyun-1c weather satellite as part of an anti-satellite technology test. Brian Weeden, who tracked the explosion’s effects for the U.S. Air Force, recalls: “We ended up cataloging more than 3,000 objects. That one satellite turned into 3,000 things.” Every shard is a fast-moving projectile with the potential to pierce anything, creating perilous conditions for satellites and manned spacecraft as well as spacewalking astronauts. There are no international regulations for operating satellites and thus no coordination among nations and very little accountability. In 2007, the Interagency Space Debris Coordination Committee issued recommendations for mitigating risks, but the guidelines were strictly voluntary. In December 2020, in a first attempt to address the problem, the European Space Agency (ESA) had commissioned a project to remove debris from orbit. The launch of Clearspace-1 is planned for 2025; it will capture the upper stage of a rocket that was left in orbit after an ESA launch in 2013 and pull it closer to Earth so that both the chaser and its target burn up in the atmosphere. In commenting on the project, ESA Director General Jan Wörner says: “Imagine how dangerous the oceans would be if all of the ships ever lost at sea were still drifting in the water. That is the situation in orbit today.” An ever-growing field of space junk could give rise to Kessler syndrome.
This cascading effect, named after astrophysicist Donald Kessler who proposed the hypothetical scenario in 1978, describes a catastrophic chain reaction: Two satellites collide, and their debris in turn destroy other satellites, and so on. The number of fragments in orbit would then become so high that new rockets wouldn’t be able to get through the field of rubble unscathed—space travel would come to a standstill for generations. And that wouldn’t even be the worst part: The real disaster would be the loss of all the satellites that have such a major impact on our lives today. For example, GPS would no longer exist, and telephony and classic television reception would be restricted. Freight traffic as well as ships and aircraft would be significantly impeded.
All the satellites being launched by Spacex and other companies provide plenty of cause for concern. But it is in their interest to not compound the existing problem by contributing to the amount of orbiting space junk. For its part, Spacex has equipped its satellites with ion engines that avoid collisions by steering around objects. When the engines die, the satellites are meant to de-orbit and burn up as they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere. But dead satellites can remain in orbit for up to 5 years and continue to pose a threat. Currently about 3% of Starlink satellites have stopped responding to commands and are no longer able to navigate around objects in space…