Last month, around the April new moon, we were strolling back to the house after our evening dog walk, when we paused to take in the night sky. I try to make a point to do this when it’s a particularly dark time of the month (literally and metaphorically). After all, the inky blackness following sunset is one of the reasons that I moved to Arizona last summer. After years of living among the hustle and bustle of a booming metropolis cloaked in permanent skyglow, I relish these desert skies that offer a specific kind of soul-soothing that can be replicated in few other environments. It’s a flavor of magic that I very much enjoy, especially considering the known impacts of light pollution on our well-being. Oh, and because I’m a person who studies sleep.
As the boyfriend and I tried to pick out constellations while the dog snuffled nearby in the garden, we couldn’t help but draw attention to what appeared to be 3 satellites in the same orbit directly overhead. How strange, we thought. Must be an anomaly. Surely there couldn’t be any more?
As you might predict, things got weirder. Following a short distance behind was a 4th, then a 5th, and then a 6th little white moving light. In fact, this continued up to a total count of 12 satellites. So of course we took to the internet in search of answers.
Clearly others were doing much the same. It took no effort at all to deduce that the man responsible was none other than Elon Musk. Happy that we weren’t meandering down UFO alley, we dug a little further. These satellites were part of the SpaceX project, Starlink, which has but one mission: to deliver high speed internet to the entire planet. Yes, that 5G thing that everyone is talking about.
Starlink is a communications network comprising a series of satellites each weighing just over a quarter of a ton and displaying 4 powerful antennas. Utilizing krypton-powered thrusters, these things can maneuver in space, with the idea that at the end of their life, they will de-orbit and either enter deep space, or burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.
The ultimate goal is to have thousands of these satellites in orbit in the next 5 years. As such, an important consideration is not only the possibility of collision, but also pollution (literal space junk). Starlink satellites make use of inputs from the Department of Defense’s debris tracking system to ensure systems remain intact, as such avoiding collision wherever possible.
Sixty of these are being launched at a time, with approximately 1,500 of the units aiming to be in orbit by late 2022. That’s an unfathomable amount of stuff circling the Earth. Consider figures from the European Space Agency, which state that as of February 2020, the total number of satellites that have been launched into space is just 9,600. Of these, about 2,300 are still functioning, while 5,500 remain in space. We’ve never experienced anything of this magnitude from a single entity before.
In 2013, NASA reported that there were more than 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth. These pieces travel at speeds of 17,500 mph, which is plenty fast enough to do damage to a satellite or spacecraft in a collision. While the Department of Defense plays a vital role in tracking these objects and does a remarkably effective job in doing so, there is always risk associated with items that—for whatever reason—become non-trackable.
It has been a year since the first of these satellites were launched into orbit. In those first, critical months there was a 95% success rate. This is thought to have increased over the past year, though I can’t help but come back to the fact that while the percentage failure is small compared to those responding as planned in orbit, as the total number continues to climb, those failures become a significant total quantity. If you want to really get out there with your big questions, does there come a point where we risk trapping ourselves on Earth? We’re future-proofing our ability to Tweet, but what about the prospect of space travel being essential for the survival of humanity at some (hopefully distant) point in time? What then, if we can’t safely make it past the Earth’s atmosphere?
Failures and being stuck on Earth aside, perhaps the heaviest point of contention is the issue of traffic for astronomers trying to keep their eyes on space. In a special news conference, Professor Patrick Seitzer at the University of Michigan emphasized that what has surprised both astronomers and SpaceX alike was just how bright these things are. There have been numerous reports from observatories the world over that long exposure images have become polluted by these satellite paths. Similarly, scientists seeking objects at the edge of the solar system rely on the critical period just after sunset when these items are most visible. This, unfortunately, coincides with the highest visibility of the satellites.
In her excellent TED talk given in November 2019, astrophysicist Kelsey Johnson touched upon the issues associated with light pollution. From a nod to the humble dogwhelk that plays a critical role in our coastal rock pools to sea turtles and birds, almost every species on this planet is affected by light pollution. And when it comes to us, light pollution is so bad that the disruption to our wake/sleep cycle (circadian rhythm) as a result is listed by the American Cancer Society as a probable carcinogen. Satellites are a part of that light pollution.
Johnson goes on to discuss how private companies, like SpaceX, will launch such an abundance of satellites into orbit that there will come a time that they literally outnumber the visible stars in the sky. That makes studying space a near impossible pursuit. And while the thought of life out in the ether terrifies me, denying all possibility of learning about it terrifies me more.
It’s almost impossible to divorce oneself from time spent staring into a screen these days. Our lives and the work we do depends upon internet access. It’s manageable for physical and mental health, as long as there is sufficient time spent away in nature and true darkness to escape to and indulge in. I’m not here to pretend as though I have the right to deny any person 5G. In fact, I see many benefits that can come from it in my own life and research. But how can we sleep at night knowing that there may be no coming back from this decision?
When little makes sense, I take to the driveway on those dog walks and know that I can look up and allow myself to be bathed in stillness, if for but a moment, in a quiet night sky. Once that’s gone, where is my refuge? Where’s yours?
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