Why Musk You Do This?

Starlink is Elon Musk’s latest venture. It is a part of SpaceX and aims to create a megaconstellation of broadband internet satellites that will globally provide users with high-speed internet. Sounds great, right? Let me try and change your mind.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commision (FCC) has granted permission to launch 12,000 Starlink satellites into low Earth orbit, but applications have been made to an international radio-frequency regulator to launch a further 30,000 Starlink satellites, meaning a total of 42,000 satellites. The scale of this operation is difficult to comprehend, so let me give a bit of perspective: the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) estimates that, at the start of 2019, there were approximately 5,000 satellites in orbit, of which only 40% (around 2,000) were actually operational. This means that Musk wants to launch 8 times as many satellites as there are currently in orbit, giving him a monopoly over the skies.

You might be thinking, so what? Who cares? Well, one community is very concerned: astronomers. As of March 15th 2020, there are over 300 Starlink satellites in orbit, which have already had a negative global impact on ground-based astronomy. “What surprised everyone — the astronomy community and SpaceX — was how bright their satellites are,” said Patrick Seitzer, an astronomy professor emeritus at the University of Michigan. The impact of the brightness, speed and number of satellites is that they pollute astronomers’ observations by leaving trails within images. Considering that 400 satellites are needed for minor internet coverage, and 800 for moderate coverage, the effect will only get more severe. One possible solution is to reduce the brightness of the satellites by a factor of 10, which would add extra cost and require new technology.

During his keynote speech at the Satellite 2020 conference in Washington, DC, Musk stated “I am confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries. Zero. … We’ll take corrective action if it [the impact] is above zero.” This claim will be hard to disprove, as how can we know if it’s having an impact on discoveries if they haven’t yet been discovered?

Whilst Musk has said that he is willing to take corrective action, he hasn’t given detailed information as to what this may involve. It’s a scary thought that one of the oldest sciences is at the mercy of a billionaire with seemingly little regard for the destructive impacts of his latest foray.

image source: GettyImages