Monday, March 29, 2021

Are 12,000 Starlink Internet Satellites Really Worth Destroying The Night Sky?


               Artist's conception of  Starlink Internet System  (WSJ, p. B7,  Mar. 20-21)

Space X's Starlink  already dominates the night sky to the point of seriously threatening Earth-based optical astronomy, See e.g. the effect low  Earth orbit satellites could have on astronomy.

But now a new iteration for a Starlink-based internet will just about finish it off. Starlink has now received approval from the FCC to launch nearly 12,000 satellites.  These will be to support a "Starlink internet" system (WSJ, Mar. 20-21, 'The New Space Race That Is Landing In A Backyard Near You').  Why so many whizzing overhead? Because given the relatively low altitude of each (about 1,200 miles) they will each pass very quickly overhead - this in contrast to the standard geosynchronous satellite at 22,400 miles altitude.  

 The diagram below - from the AAS meeting and Lowenthal's prsentation, shows the difference between the geostationary orbit (GEO) and low Earth orbit (LEO) for satellites:

Because of the standard Starlink low Earth orbit, a signal can travel swiftly from Earth to satellite and back.  The disadvantage is so many thousands of satellites are needed to sustain connections, basically making a mess of astronomical observing.  Recall the Starlink image from 2019 compliments of James Lowenthal in his AAS 236 presentation  ('Satellite Mega Constellations And The Night Sky: OIR Visibility, Impacts & Policy.'on the associated problems:

This  will now, alas, be normal for observers from Earth and,   as Prof. Lowenthal noted in his lecture,  the  Vera Rubin Observatory    is already being affected in its mission to image the entire southern sky every few nights.  As Lowenthal put it:

"We are talking about tens of satellites at once, at any moment, during many hours of the night … across your field of view. It’s a terrible collision of technologies” 

But it seems the observations of land-based astronomers  must now take second place to ensuring every manjack on the planet as an internet connection.  Here's the other aspect: Starlink requires (or will) every manjack using its service to "handle his own installation" and have his own antenna.  The WSJ piece referring to one early 'guinea pig'  assures us it is "min-numbingly easy" - which is to say, connecting the pizza-sized antenna to the provided router and power".  And finally adding the Starlink app.  The hardest part? Running the antenna's data and power cable into the home.

Not humbugged by such details? You will still have to get in line as the waiting list is now longer than  a year.  However, for those in isolated rural areas the wait may be worth it.   "Internet from space" as it were, clearly has advantages in closing the rural-urban divide - not only for Americans but for the rest of the world.   As the WSJ writer notes: "It could also encourage new ways of working and living untethered from cable and fiber-optic internet connections and providing a wider array of internet service options.  

The question humans will have to answer is: Is all this new technology worth shutting off our access to the starry skies? Looking up to the heavens and only seeing artificial "stars"  - the thousands spawned by the Starlink technology. Is that really worth it?  For millions - who don't fancy being "star gazers" it may well be.  But for many millions of others the loss of the skies will mark a major backward step and a significant research impediment as well.  

Make no mistake that the launch of Starlink  angered astronomers around the world and began a conversation about humanity's relationship with the heavens - namely with the ability to observationally access the myriad astronomical objects in the night sky - which might now recede into visual obscurity.   As Lowenthal plaintively asked at the conclusion of his talk:  

What are the stars and the sky worth?

That's the $64 question each human, especially those who retain a childlike curiosity about the universe, will have to ask.

See also:

Light pollution is getting worse, and Earth is paying the price

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