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Who Owns the Sky?

Companies are launching thousands of satellites. They will provide internet access around the globe—and could change the night sky forever.

YURI SMITYUK\TASS VIA GETTY IMAGES

PARADE OF SATELLITES: Each glowing dot in this row is one of 60 Starlink satellites launched last April. They’re seen here in the night sky passing over a lighthouse in Russia.

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT problems that might result from having too many objects in orbit around Earth.

Two years ago, astronomer James Lowenthal of Smith College in Massachusetts went stargazing with some of his students. It was a beautiful, clear night. Suddenly, a member of the group shouted, “What’s that?” Dozens of shining dots were marching in a perfect line across the dark sky. “I was stunned,” says Lowenthal. “As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was. And I knew the sky would never be the same.”

Lowenthal and his students had glimpsed 60 satellites launched earlier that day by SpaceX. The California-based company plans to send 12,000 of these devices into orbit around Earth within the next few years as part of a project called Starlink. The network of satellites will surround the planet. They’ll supply internet service to nearly every part of the world. Other companies have competing programs in the works, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

Two years ago, James Lowenthal went stargazing with some of his students. Lowenthal is an astronomer at Smith College in Massachusetts. It was a beautiful, clear night. Suddenly, a student shouted, “What’s that?” Dozens of shining dots were marching across the dark sky. They formed a perfect line. “I was stunned,” says Lowenthal. “As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was. And I knew the sky would never be the same.”

Lowenthal and his students had spotted 60 satellites. They were launched earlier that day by SpaceX. The California-based company plans to send 12,000 satellites into orbit around Earth within the next few years. It’s part of a project called Starlink. The network of satellites will surround the planet. They’ll supply internet service to nearly every part of the world. Other companies are working on competing programs, including Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

CHARLES KRUPA/AP IMAGES

SPOTTY CONNECTION: Students lacking high-speed internet have been struggling with remote schooling during the pandemic.

If successful, these satellites will help information travel faster and reach more people than ever before. But some scientists, including Lowenthal, worry that having so many bright objects circling Earth will interfere with astronomy research—and significantly change people’s view of the night sky.

If these programs succeed, they’ll help information travel faster and reach more people than ever before. But Lowenthal and some other scientists are worried. So many bright objects circling Earth might interfere with astronomy research. Plus they could greatly change people’s view of the night sky.

A BRIGHT IDEA?

Endeavors like Starlink and Project Kuiper will help solve two big problems with internet access: availability and speed. High-speed internet typically travels to homes and businesses through underground fiber-optic cables, which transmit data via fast pulses of light. But these cables often don’t reach rural areas, and many people can’t afford service. Roughly 19 million people in the United States—about 6 percent of the population—lack access to high-speed internet. They’re at a disadvantage when participating in remote learning, working from home, getting medical care online, and much more. All of these activities have become even more important during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Availability and speed are two big problems with internet access. Projects like Starlink and Project Kuiper will help solve them. High-speed internet usually travels to homes and businesses through underground fiber-optic cables. These cables send data through fast pulses of light. But they often don’t reach rural areas, and many people can’t afford service. About 19 million people in the United States don’t have access to high-speed internet. That’s about 6 percent of the population. It’s harder for them to share in remote learning, work from home, get medical care online, and much more. All of these activities have become even more important during the Covid-19 pandemic.

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ONE OF THOUSANDS: Solar panels will provide power to individual satellites—each about the size of an office desk—making up a global network.

Additionally, there’s often a delay when a signal travels via cable over long distances. Instead of using cables, Starlink and Project Kuiper will send internet signals between satellites and then beam the signals down to customers (see How Space-Based Internet Works). The projects transmit data in the form of electromagnetic radiation, or light energy. These signals travel through space much faster than data in fiber-optic cables, providing speedy, reliable internet. If successful, the projects will provide high-speed internet to nearly anyplace on the planet, from remote villages to ships at sea. The companies say their networks could help bridge the “digital divide” by bringing fast internet to billions of people who lack reliable access.

Space-based internet has already proved it can be valuable in emergencies. Although Starlink has launched only a fraction of its planned network, the satellites helped in the wake of devastating wildfires in Washington State last August. After the fires damaged fiber-optic cables, emergency responders used the service to provide evacuated families with crucial access to wireless calls and the web. SpaceX launched limited service in the Northern U.S. and Canada in 2020 and plans to expand to near global coverage this year.

Another problem occurs when a signal travels through cables over long distances. Often, there’s a delay. Starlink and Project Kuiper won’t use cables. Instead, they’ll send internet signals between satellites. Then they’ll beam the signals down to customers (see How Space-Based Internet Works). The projects send data in the form of electromagnetic radiation, or light energy. These signals travel through space much faster than data in fiber optic cables. So they’ll provide fast, dependable internet. If the projects work, they’ll provide high-speed internet to nearly anyplace on the planet. They’ll even reach remote villages and ships at sea. The companies say their networks could help bridge the “digital divide.” They’ll bring fast internet to billions of people who lack dependable access.

Space-based internet has already helped in emergencies. Starlink has launched only a fraction of its planned network. But last August, wildfires swept across Washington State. After the fires damaged fiber-optic cables, emergency responders used the service They gave displaced families needed access to wireless calls and the web. SpaceX launched limited service in the Northern U.S. and Canada in 2020. The company plans to cover nearly the whole globe this year.

VICTORIA GIRGIS/LOWELL OBSERVATORY

PHOTOBOMBING SATELLITES: Here’s what the area known as the NGC 5353 galaxy group looks like with a clear telescope view (inset). In this larger image of the same galaxy group (NCG 5353) taken by the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, a group of Starlink satellites passing overhead left behind these diagonal streaks.

CROWDED SKIES

Lowenthal, who watched the first Starlink satellites sweep across the sky, can see the project’s potential. But he’s also worried. High above Earth, satellites reflect sunlight, causing them to shine at night. That creates light pollution. This light from technology makes it harder to see the night sky and can interfere with astronomical observations.

Light pollution has troubled stargazers for generations. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains billions of stars. In the 1800s, observers could look up and see it stretched across the sky, even from busy cities. But since electric lighting became more common in the 1900s, light pollution has grown worse. Today, only about 20 percent of Americans can view the Milky Way from their backyards. “The Milky Way is our home,” says Lowenthal. “Not being able to see it is a tragedy.”

Lowenthal watched the first Starlink satellites march across the sky. He sees how the project could help. But he’s also worried. High above Earth, satellites reflect sunlight. That makes them shine at night, and it creates light pollution. This light from technology makes it harder to see the night sky. It can also interfere with astronomy research.

Light pollution has bothered stargazers for many years. Our galaxy, the Milky Way, contains billions of stars. In the 1800s, people could see it stretched across the sky, even from busy cities. But electric lighting became more common in the 1900s. Since then, light pollution has grown worse. Today, only about 20 percent of Americans can see the Milky Way from their backyards. “The Milky Way is our home,” says Lowenthal. “Not being able to see it is a tragedy.”

Lowenthal says adding thousands of bright satellites to the sky will further reduce astronomers’ ability to make observations and gather images. “The concern is we’ll point our telescope to study a far-off galaxy or faint stars, and a satellite will whiz through,” says Lowenthal. “Picture after picture will get ruined.” The skies are only going to get more crowded. In all, more than 100,000 internet satellites are slated for launch within the next decade (see Satellites in Orbit).

Another fear is that so many satellites zipping around Earth will increase the chances of collisions in space. Debris from those accidents would stay in orbit for years and could crash into other objects, like spacecraft, making space travel more risky. SpaceX designed its Starlink satellites to automatically move out of the way to avoid collisions. But there’s no guarantee that accidents won’t happen among thousands of satellites from various companies.

Now, thousands of bright satellites will be added to the sky. Lowenthal says it will become even harder for astronomers to make observations and gather images. “The concern is we’ll point our telescope to study a far-off galaxy or faint stars, and a satellite will whiz through,” says Lowenthal. “Picture after picture will get ruined.” The skies are only going to get more crowded. More than 100,000 internet satellites are planned to launch over the next decade (see Satellites in Orbit).

And there’s another fear. With so many satellites zipping around Earth, the chances of crashes in space will increase. Pieces from those accidents would stay in orbit for years. They could crash into other objects, like spacecraft. That would make space travel more risky. SpaceX designed its Starlink satellites to automatically move to avoid crashes. But thousands of satellites will launch from different companies, so accidents could happen.

WORKING TOGETHER

Lowenthal and an international team of astronomers are building computer simulations to investigate how internet satellites might affect their work. They’re also working with engineers at SpaceX to address the problems satellites pose for astronomy research. The company is now painting the bottoms of the devices black to make them less reflective. And they’ve added sun shields, which look like the visors used on car windshields, to block sunlight. Those changes have made a big difference. The new Starlink satellites reflect 60 percent less light than earlier versions and can’t be seen with the naked eye. But it’s hard to know if other companies will attempt to accommodate scientists’ needs in their designs.

And astronomers won’t be the only ones affected—amateur stargazers and anyone who looks to the skies may notice changes. Lowenthal is part of a committee that will advise the United Nations on ways for people around the world to weigh in on how they’ll be affected by the addition of hundreds of artificial constellations. “My hope is we will have a much broader discussion about who owns the sky and the importance of it being unpolluted,” he says.

Lowenthal and an international team of astronomers want to learn how internet satellites might affect their work. So they’re building computer simulations to find out. They’re also working with engineers at SpaceX. Together, they’re addressing the problems satellites cause for astronomy research. Now the company is painting the bottoms of the satellites black. That makes them reflect less light. And they’ve added sun shields to block sunlight. The shields look like the visors used on car windshields. Those changes have made a big difference. The new Starlink satellites reflect 60 percent less light than older ones. And they can’t be seen with the naked eye. But will other companies try to address scientists’ needs in their designs? It’s hard to know.

And astronomers won’t be the only ones affected. Amateur stargazers and anyone who looks to the skies may notice changes. After all, hundreds of artificial constellations will be added. Lowenthal wants people around the world to discuss how they’ll be affected. He’s part of a committee that will advise the United Nations on ways to make this happen. “My hope is we will have a much broader discussion about who owns the sky and the importance of it being unpolluted,” he says.

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