Elon Musk is flinging long, screamingly bright strings of satellites into space – into our sky – with the noble goal of revolutionising internet access. Star geek Naomi Arnold considers what could be lost.
I went down many astronomical tangents when I was researching my book Southern Nights, but one of my favourites was discovering 19th century French science fiction writer and celebrity astronomer Camille Flammarion. Called the “weirdest and most imaginative astronomer in France” in 1911, he was certainly one of the most revered.
Flammarion made his observations from a private observatory near Paris, built for him by a wealthy admirer. For a book that was focused on New Zealand astronomy, I really spent far too much time digging about in Papers Past for news of Flammarion. But once you discover he was so beloved that a tuberculous young admirer bequeathed him a large strip of skin from her back and shoulders so he could bind one of his books with her, you kind of want to find out more.
There were three things in particular that caught my attention about him: the skin-bound book; his dire warning ahead of the 1910 appearance of Halley’s Comet (The New Zealand Herald published them under the headline: THE DOOM OF THE WORLD: ASTRONOMER’S FEAR OF COMET); and his idea for a “peace projectile” that would shoot into space to commemorate world peace, which he posited at the close of WW1.
He thought the peace ball, made of melted-down mortar shells, could launch from a giant cannon, poetically made of a bunch of smaller cannons. The shining man-made star of peace would orbit Earth and “furnish the most wonderful and brilliant spectacle in the skies”, the Herald said.
That was in 1911, and Earth wouldn’t actually send up its first satellite until Sputnik in 1957. But Flammarion’s idea for a peace projectile came to a fruition of sorts in January 2018, when New Zealander Peter Beck launched the Humanity Star from his Rocket Lab complex on the Mahia Peninsula.
The Humanity Star was a carbon-fibre disco ball a metre in diameter, and its purpose wasn’t too dissimilar from Flammarion’s idea for a beacon for peace. Reflecting the sun’s rays, the spinning sphere flashed against a backdrop of stars, and Beck said it was to remind people looking at the night sky that their personal problems were small and trivial, that we are more connected than different, and to consider our place in the universe.
“It has always been a frustration of mine that people do not understand their place in the universe. We are one species on a rock,” Beck told media. “The Humanity Star is a way of looking beyond our immediate situation, whatever that may be, and understanding we are all in this together as one species.”
Where Flammarion’s ball was to orbit every 80 minutes, the Humanity Star’s orbit was 92 minutes. It lasted until March 2018 when it re-entered the atmosphere and burned up, several months earlier than expected. It did ignite imaginations worldwide, including those behind the Russian startup, StartRocket, which cited the Humanity Star as inspiration for a plan to build gigantic orbital billboards, causing a flurry of news stories last year.
The dream of mucking about in space is as old as humanity itself, and finding out about the many ways we have interacted with the stars, planets, and galaxies over the centuries was one of the great pleasures of writing Southern Nights. Flammarion’s idea clearly has legs, because more projects that put orbiting objects into space for humanity’s ostensible benefit are on the way, in the art, media, and commercial worlds.
A Japanese company called AstroLive Experiences plans artificial meteor showers, one of which could light up the skies for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 (Covid-19 notwithstanding). Rocket Lab launched its ALE-2 payload containing the artificial meteors in December last year. Another company plans to launch microsatellites equipped with laser diodes, which could later be used to write messages in the sky.
But fleets of reflective objects in space have serious implications for astronomy. How much should we allow up there? The sky above Earth is increasingly filled with space junk; there are more than 20,000 orbiting objects in the US Air Force’s official public catalogue, and 90 pecent of those are dead satellites, old rocket bodies and parts of spacecraft.
When the Humanity Star was mooted, astronomers didn’t much like the idea, because reflective surfaces interfere with their observations. But that was one artificial satellite, designed to orbit for a while and burn up. Today, tech billionaire Elon Musk has made things far, far worse with his SpaceX Starlink satellite constellation.
Starlink is meant to bring internet to the masses, but it’s been a disaster for astronomy so far, and Musk has barely got going on his planned flotilla of thousands. When I was writing the book, Starlink hadn’t yet launched; but a few weeks ago, I went outside to catch some of the satellite train as it ticked overhead – a string of small, bright lights, speeding 550km above, moving at a quick clip past Orion and down towards the Southern Cross, then gone.
They’re not so much of a big deal for ordinary people looking at the stars – they’re kind of cool, actually. But it’s disastrous for observational astronomy. University of Auckland associate professor in physics JJ Eldridge told RNZ last week that they’re a big threat to multi-billion-dollar astronomy projects. The satellites are so bright, and leave such ruinous white trails on research images, that they’re polluting the night sky and even blocking astronomers’ view of potentially dangerous asteroids.
“We’re blinding ourselves to the universe,” she says. And no-one gets any say. Down on Earth, you can’t just build a skyscraper next door without planning permission and neighbours’ consent.
“No one was consulted, and yet we’re going to lose the sky.”
But it can be hard going speaking up against Starlink, or indeed against anything Musk says and does. If there was any modern-day celebrity that could inspire someone to gift their own hide, it’s got to be Elon Musk. His fans (Musketeers; think Beyhive, but for tech bros) are legion and passionate. One astronomer I approached for this story said no thanks, they’d rather not comment. They’d been thoroughly abused on Twitter after criticising Starlink.
“I think where you’d start from with Musk,” University of Auckland professor and head of physics Richard Easter says, evenly, “is that it really does is show how the innovation has gotten ahead of regulation as far as the use of space is concerned. The regulatory environment didn’t anticipate that people were going to launch these giant constellations.”
The University of Auckland is putting New Zealand’s first satellite (outside of Rocket Lab) into orbit later this year, built by a team of UoA students. Easther says there are multiple layers of issues that operators have to address, including it not causing trouble for other operators, not likely to create a debris hazard in orbit or on ground, and not causing any radio linkage issues. But optical interference, or how things look up there, doesn’t come up.
One of the problems is what impact does it have on other people who want to operate in space? “The lowest orbit gets crowded in ways other people find uncomfortable.”
Another is how it changes everyone’s experience of the night sky. Stewardship of our natural environment had no place in the Starlink discussion.
“At the moment it’s fun to go out and see something like the International Space Station, but that only consists of a single bright light,” Easther says. “If you’re out hiking or on a dark beach, the likelihood is that there could be hundreds of these things visible and moving. At times, they could be close to a majority of the naked eye objects you’ll be able to see in the sky.
“These issues are not unique to Starlink, but if a handful of companies follow through on their current plans, they will redecorate everyone’s night sky without ever asking for permission.”
As he’s proven over and over, Elon Musk likes to “move fast and break things”.
“But for many people — including me — this is something that should not be broken.
“I would say there is growing and significant concern inside the astronomical community, and it was significantly exacerbated by flippant comments by Musk which made it appear that SpaceX hadn’t thought of astronomy in a meaningful way.”
Space lawyer Maria Pozza, director of Christchurch firm Gravity Lawyers, says it’s hard to take a stance for or against on issues like this. It’s complicated by the fact that although there are five pieces of international law that are specific to outer space, of which New Zealand is signatory to a few, there is no official demarcation line as to where air law ends and space law begins.
“That’s the first issue. And then when you go do get into space, wherever it may start from, you’re dealing with an area that is the common heritage of mankind, open for everyone but owned by no-one,” she says.
“Astronomy is a critically important field of study, but access to the internet is also equally important. Because there are detriments and benefits in all space activities, weighing up risk factors is likely to become a more complex problem.”
She says that despite this, it’s an exciting time witnessing the increase in space technological developments. But as technology advances, so will the need for applicants to supply regulatory bodies with a strong risk-mitigation plan that outlines the safety measures that will be put in place around them.
She does disagree that Starlink is “polluting” the universe.
“There is no definition of what a piece of space debris is,” she says. “If we consider a piece of space pollution or space debris as something that’s not used or is no longer useful to us and we then discard it, then Starlink is not pollution. It has a use; it is going to be used for the benefit of mankind through the provisioning of access to internet.”
That has been debated by those against Starlink. Although Musk’s defenders cite him as a crusading force for cheap, fast internet as a human right, Easther says it’s unlikely to operate in a jurisdiction that regulates its citizens’ internet access. And the idea that it’s going to bring internet to the poor masses is so far untested and unproven.
“At least initially their customers may be people who would pay a premium for connectivity from remote places, which might include the military … I don’t think it’s about providing internet service to Mongolian yak herders, at least to begin with. I feel this is much more likely to be oil rigs, ships at sea, aircraft.”
What about here? New Zealand’s only recently entered the space race with Rocket Lab’s operation, and we could be described as an emerging space-faring nation. Pozza says we can expect to see more local development in low earth orbit space tech.
“After a decade of campaigning to our various governments that we need to implement a space regulatory framework that focuses on low earth orbit (LEO) space, it’s great that finally in 2017 that New Zealand implemented its own space regulatory framework,” she says.
“Having regulation in place means that we can promote, protect and support our local market, grow our local economy in this sector, and ensure compliance with health and safety as well as international legal obligations.”
A spokesperson from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment wasn’t available to talk this week because of Covid-19 duties, but said in a statement that satellite impacts on our natural night sky is a new area where international norms and standards are still developing.
“As this type of activity increases, norms will be developed and factors to be considered in developing an international response will inevitably include the interests of astronomers,” it said.
Although the United States already has regulations that prohibit “obtrusive space advertising”, MBIE thinks it’s doubtful that these would capture “short-lived and intermittent activities” such as those one-off displays of shooting stars (which burn up in the atmosphere) or non-commercial activities.
Personally, after spending several years deep in the wonders of astronomy and also having recently moved to a rural place where we suffer the indignities of ADSL, I’d argue that access to the internet should indeed by now be a basic human right.
But we should put the needs of astronomy above it – not just for the science, but because a dark, uncluttered night sky is a fast-disappearing natural resource. Some global observatories have had to shut down because of light pollution, or cease research work entirely. We shouldn’t be adding to those losses. If you define industrial pollution as a by-product of the manufacturing and technology we deem necessary, then reflected light from orbiting satellites providing wifi is environmental pollution. Like smokestack emissions, or toxic factory waste sent down rivers.
Could the satellites be less reflective? Less bright? Easther does say there is some possibility that they could be built that way. “Spacecraft are shiny for a reason – to reflect the light that hits them and if they’re not, they’ll heat up,” he says.
“It’s also true that if you thought harder about it you could engineer them to be less bright, but it would likely make them more expensive. But the impact of these satellites could be reduced through better design and at some cost to their operators.”
Ultimately, Pozza says, innovation will continue to move on, and regulation can only catch up in its wake. “Technology doesn’t wait for any law.”
Although the universe looks boundless, and although we often say a night is so dark we can see “millions” of stars, we can in fact only see a few thousand with the naked eye, even on one of the clear, dark nights that light pollution has now rendered so rare down here on Earth. Satellites might one day outnumber those entirely.
But progress rolls on. At 2.30am this Sunday morning New Zealand time, Starlink’s sixth batch of 60 satellites will launch into our sky. It’ll be another train of lights interrupting our night; 60 new white stars cast loose among the firmament.
Naomi Arnold’s book Southern Nights (HarperCollins, $65) is available from Unity Books.
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