Gazing up at the night sky as a child, I loved to point out the satellites blinking in the night sky. Often, I could see them more clearly than the stars.
Later, as a student pouring over long-exposure images of the night sky, searching for that miraculous band of the milky way galaxy, I grew accustomed to the bright trails cutting their way across the pictures. But it wasn’t always this way.
Satellites in low orbit have increased exponentially over the past few years, thanks to some key players: Starlink, an international, broadband internet service by SpaceX; Project Kuiper by Amazon; China Star Network; and OneWeb sponsored by the UK government and other investors. In the past three years, Starlink and OneWeb have launched more than 40% of all the satellites currently orbiting the Earth.
In the 1990s, satellite internet and phones were popularized but quickly lost momentum after companies went bankrupt in the early 2000s. In the 2010s, however, satellite internet made a comeback, thanks to the cost of production and launch of satellites drastically decreasing. Some of these projects are even nationally and internationally sponsored.
With these conversations about satellite pollution comes a bigger question: can low Earth orbit be considered an environment? The only regulatory laws that exist for low earth orbit pertains to satellites, and it specifies that satellites need licenses from national agencies, like the US Federal Communications Commission, to be launched. Other than that, there is no regulation for the number of satellites that can be launched into orbit.
Some concerned groups have used precedence from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to push US agencies like the FCC to consider environmental consequences before launching projects.
The effects of satellites go beyond astronomical impacts— people are affected by satellite swarms too. For example, many indigenous peoples will often use the stars for spiritual and cultural practices, however, there’s another side to this argument. Modernization requires most indigenous communities to have access to the internet, and Starlink’s satellites offer access to it. This Internet connectivity on reservations has allowed wider access to education and vaccine clinics.
Astronomers and astrophysicists, with their telescopes trained to the skies, have a different opinion on the satellites that clutter their images, and they aren’t sure how much their data will be affected by these satellite swarms. There are algorithms that can correct for the satellite streaks but scrubbing away the bright spots from satellites might affect data in other ways we don’t yet understand.
These conversations are important to have. Do the positive impacts of satellite swarms outweigh the negatives, or will the effects of these satellite swarms cause more harm than good? Scientists across the globe are rushing to determine this, considering Starlink alone has submitted to launch almost 42,000 satellites into space. Within the next decade, the night sky is going to look a lot different.