Elon Musk has grabbed the headlines for claiming UFOs and aliens exist—but for thousands of people around the world who have witnessed Musk’s Starlink satellites soaring across the night sky, he might as well be referring to himself.
Starlink is an ambitious project to establish a network of satellites that can provide high-speed Internet service to all parts of the globe. There are currently more than 1,600 satellites in low-Earth orbit.
Starlink has immediate benefits. It offers Internet connectivity to remote parts of the planet, which could prove life-changing for 50% of people who do not have it. Starlink’s 90,000. Subscribers and 500,000-strong Waiting List seem to agree.
But with the service leaving its ‘beta’ test phase next month and SpaceX planning to put a further 40,000 spacecraft in the sky, scientists and astronomers are beginning to worry about the potentially devastating consequences it could have for life on Earth.
Starlink satellites orbit in a much smaller range than other satellites, which allows them to provide fast Internet speeds. They orbit between 200 and 400 miles above the Earth’s surface. While satellites can orbit as far as 2000 miles away, they orbit within a radius of about 200 to 400 miles.
This means Starlink satellites are bright—really bright. They reflect sunlight so brightly that they appear like stars and planets in the night sky. SpaceX has attempted to dimm the brightness by using DarkSat, which is a dark material that can be seen from Earth. This can greatly interfere with the type of telescopes scientists rely upon.
Starlink has drawn criticism from astronomers across the globe. Astronomers rely on clear skies to find new stars, planets, asteroids, and potentially even larger ones that might be headed for Earth.
A group of international astronomers has called for legal action in order to stop Starlink’s roll-out until the risks have been fully assessed. “The harm here is damage to our cultural heritage, the night sky, and monetary damages due to the loss of radio and other types of astronomy,” the astronomers said in a 2020 open letter.
Another major risk is that of collisions. Starlink satellites could collide with each other and cause thousands of pieces to fall into Earth’s orbit.
Without a way of removing it, that debris could then disable other satellites and cause them to crash into even more satellites, leading to what is called ‘Kessler syndrome’—in which space becomes too dangerous for anyone to access. This is what Pixar’s “Wall-E” depicted as the danger posed by space junk.
SpaceX claims to have designed a solution for this, namely, an AI-powered anti-collision feature on the satellites that moves them away from potential impacts. Many of SpaceX’s satellites have been disabled and are not yet returned to Earth.
Musk’s company isn’t the only one that faces risks. A whole range of other companies—including Amazon—are clawing to get their own satellite networks in orbit, which could lead to hundreds of thousands of satellites penning us in. The human race may have to decide soon whether “Internet for everyone” is worth the cost of space for none.