Those of us looking up at the sky at night may have spotted a new constellation. A line of lights, pinpricks against the black, arcing across the globe. These lights – drawn out in a neat procession – are not stars, they are satellites.
Swarms of tiny satellites with miniature solar panels, launched into low Earth orbit by Elon Musk’s Space-X company. This is not a constellation, this is Starlink.
On the face of it, Starlink is possibly Musk’s best idea yet. Having revolutionised the way we pay for things (PayPal) and the cars we drive (Tesla), and even having pushed forward the ambition of exploring Mars (Space-X) Musk now wants to beam broadband internet connections down from space.
He's basically taking the ideas originally articulated by the great Arthur C Clarke – bouncing radio signals off of orbiting communications satellites – and dramatically increasing the bandwidth, both literally and figuratively.
It’s reckoned that, currently, 3.8 billion people around the world don’t have high-speed internet access, something that is increasingly being seen as closer to a right than a privilege. Certainly, with everyone working from home right now, many of us are seeing, up close and personal, the restrictions of physical, phoneline broadband.
Those of us trying to telecommute from, say, west Cork or the coastline of Co Clare can't even imagine the sheer undiluted speed of proper broadband.
Musk’s plan is to beam that speed down from space. Using the Falcon rockets designed by Space-X, the plan is to launch swarms of tiny, lightweight (the lighter they are the more can be packed in for each launch) satellites.
Currently Space-X has 422 Starlink satellites in orbit – those chains of tiny fairy-lights that you can see soaring above you – and has permission from the American Federal Aviation Administration for as many as 12,000. The final total number launched by Space-X may eventually reach 30,000.
Musk has also just received licences for up to one million miniature ground-based antennas, small enough to plug into the side of your laptop, which will be the conduit through which customers interact with the satellites.
For professional and scientific observations, the problems could be much worse
Space-X is not the only game in town, either. Jeff Bezos has cashed in billions of his Amazon chips to fund his Blue Origin rocket designs and launch systems, and has plans for Earth-orbit broadband too. So too does a company called Iridium.
In March, a satellite broadband company called OneWeb went bust, citing a lack of investment as cash providers pull in their horns in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. It has some 74 micro-satellites aloft, but it’s unlikely that they will stay dormant, nor lonely, for long – the same pandemic that has put a halt to investment will also be triggering more demand for more internet.
The final total of satellites, from all providers, is expected to top 100,000. The total market for such systems is estimated to be worth more than $40 billion (€37 billion).
The fundamental appeal of the system is undoubted – 10-gigabit internet, 5G speed, anywhere in the world, for a hopefully reasonable price, and with none of the physical limitations nor installation faff of cabled broadband.
There is an issue, though, and it’s a bigger one than you might think. What happens to the night sky?
"Starlink, and the others, are going to be a nuisance because these things are quite bright, as bright as the stars in the cloud, or the North Star. Not the brightest things in the sky, but they're definitely obvious," David Moore told The Irish Times.
Moore is the chairman and founder of Astronomy Ireland, and edits the association's monthly magazine. He's worried that not only will amateur shots of the night sky be ruined by streaks of light reflected from Musk's satellite swarms, but that there are bigger – much bigger – picture problems lurking out in space.
Astronomy, and the sheer sight of the night sky, is a key first step on the road to scientific inquiry for many
“There are currently about 1,000 satellites that you can see with the naked eye, above the horizon, on a given night,” says Moore. “Now, there are professional estimates that there could be as many as 1,500 of these swarm satellites visible at any one time, so it’s going to be an absolute nightmare.
“Right now, we have to take a photo, check it for the chance of a satellite passing through the frame, and then take it again if there are any issues. So imagine that when the number of satellites is doubled or more. And that’s just the issue for amateurs. For professional and scientific observations, the problems could be much worse.”
According to Moore, this isn’t just a question of upset stargazers. Some 30 per cent of Ireland’s GDP is reckoned to come from science or technology-based investment – the big multinational computer firms, the pharma industry, and so on – far outweighing the contribution made to the economy by tourism or agriculture.
Astronomy, and the sheer sight of the night sky, is a key first step on the road to scientific inquiry for many, says Moore: "You see Elon Musk himself was, as a kid, interested in astronomy, and as he went along he got sidetracked into computing and ended up going down that career path.
“I’m much the same – I was fascinated by astronomy, but ended up with a degree in computer science. I’m genuinely worried that some of that fascination, that romance of the night sky, might be taken away by these things.”
There are more serious concerns. Ireland is a major contributor to the European Southern Observatory, which is working on building a 39m telescope – the world's largest – in the deserts of Chile. The "biggest eye on the sky" (as it's called by the European Space Agency) is expected to start exploring the cosmos by 2024, but could have as much as a third of its images corrupted by swarms of tiny satellites passing overhead.
A scientific paper by Olivier R Hainaut and Andrew P Williams for the European Southern Observatory concluded that "very wide-field imaging observations on large telescopes for which saturation and ghosting caused by a satellite will ruin the full exposure, would be severely affected: about 30 per cent of the exposures could be ruined at the beginning and end of the night. The situation is even worse during twilight, with about 50 per cent of ruined images during astronomical twilight."
There may also be an existential threat. If enough of these tiny satellites are launched, they could interfere with major studies that scan the sky for asteroids and meteors that could collide with the Earth. “It’s called the LSST, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope” says Moore. “It’s a colossal telescope, with a ridiculous camera, the size of a car. Think about the size of the chip in your smartphone. Now imagine that chip is as big as a car. It’s got three-billion pixels on it. And it’s connected to a massive telescope much bigger than your house.
“It photographs the entire sky every couple of days. It’s designed to find almost everything that’s going to cause any kind of a disaster coming our way. It’s working, as well, to explore stars and other galaxies, which is will revolutionise our knowledge of the universe. It produces ridiculous amounts of data.
“There will be lots of computer science jobs for people trying to process this but no humans will ever be able to look at all the pictures that it can take. It’s a wicked-big project, very expensive, very important and the I’ve looked at the impact the satellites will have – a third of this data is going to be useless.
“Musk wants to put people on Mars, to start building a backup civilisation in case anything happens to the Earth. It would be very ironic if he is the man that’s responsible for the destruction of human civilisation, because we missed a big rock headed towards us from space. That kind of thing wiped out the dinosaurs, and it would wipe all of us out in a heartbeat.”
Quite apart from the scientific discoveries that will be lost, and the danger of missing a potentially destructive incoming asteroid, there’s also a monetary loss – total investment in the LSST is around €1 billion, so if a third of its observations are lost or corrupted, that’s €300 million down the drain.
So far, Space-X and Starlink are being uncommunicative when it comes to the issues of interference with astronomy. Musk has said, just weeks ago, that “I am confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries. Zero. That’s my prediction. And we’ll take corrective action if it’s above zero.”
But astronomers are reporting constant traces of unwanted light on photographs, and an experimental “dark” Starlink satellite has been said by some to be either not dark enough, or worse, actually brighter under certain circumstances. Space-X says that it is working on more modifications to the satellites to further reduce their visibility, including changing their angle of orientation to the sun, so as to present less of a surface that reflects light.
There are other concerns, though, including the fact that the radio transmissions from the satellites might interfere with radio-telescope observations. Musk has been characteristically offhand about both that and the concerns over light pollution, saying that: “We need to move telescopes to orbit anyway. Atmospheric attenuation is terrible.”
All well and good if you own your own rocket launch company we suppose, but not much help to those astronomers, professional and amateur, who are working from the ground. It also remains to be seen whether Musk’s recent outburst, since his partner, Canadian singer Grimes, gave birth, to the effect that he no longer wants “possessions” which “weigh him down” will have any affect on the Starlink project.
Peter Denman, speaking for The Irish Astronomical Society, echoes Moore's concerns.
“While professional astronomy has ways of lessening the impact of these through telescope scheduling and image processing, for the casual stargazer the sky will never be the same again. Just like urban dwellers no longer see the Milky Way due to light pollution, a pristine sky without these satellites will just be a distant memory. It’s rather like near-airport dwellers seeing a clear daytime sky during the current global pandemic with aircraft grounded versus the normal routine of a sky crossed by contrails.
“The third batch of 60 satellites launched in early January 2020 included one which was painted with a dark coating to trial measures to mitigate the brightness issue. Unfortunately that didn’t work very well as the individual satellite didn’t appear that much less bright than its siblings. In any case, that would do nothing to mitigate any interference with radio astronomy.”
Beyond the technological implications, though, there is a simpler, arguably more important, pastoral concern. Looking up at the stars at night has triggered humans to create art, religion, and science.
We have gone from peering through the naked eye, to using optical, then radio telescopes, and even launching human beings to other heavenly bodies. With 100,000 man-made streaks in the sky, the worry now is that we won’t see much of anything else.
“Musk, Bezos and the rest – the question is, are they prepared to pay for saving our night sky?” asks Moore. “I will be very surprised at knowing the way business works. And we’re not hopeful, is the thing. We’re thinking this could be the last decade of the last few years where the general public have access to the night-time sky.”