What Price the Stars?

Soon one out of every 15 stars you see at night will be a satellite. It’s going to get much worse.

The number of satellites promises to resemble a snow-storm in the sky, as they continue to be launched in a heedless blizzard of profit-making. According to a recent interview, Elon Musk’s stance is that tens of billions of satellites can exit in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Currently, more than 100,000 have been proposed, with 40,000 proposed to the FCC in 2021 alone. The Chinese say they want to launch 13,000 in a mega-constellation called Guowang. Goaded by concerns over sovereignty and control, the EU has its own plans for a LEO constellation.

Even Canada is creating its own modest LEO orbiters…but different (of course) from everyone else’s. The Telesat constellation will use a polar orbit — versus the equatorial orbit of all the others — so that its Northern communities will get service.

There are reasons why we need to be concerned, and to press for some kind of over-riding agency that can rein in these horses and inject some rational planning into the frenzy.

First reason to be concerned: are these sky-puppies going to work, or will we all end up paying for the experimentation of the rich?

Elon Musk has acknowledged that his first generation of satellites is “financially weak” and it will be necessary to build a new Starship rocket in order to launch a second-generation constellation to “handle the bandwidth demand” that would be generated by selling “several million” terminals per year.

But in many parts of the U.S. and Canada, half of the satellites are below the 40 degrees elevation angle. This means that there is a high likelihood that the signal will be blocked by trees and houses and hills. For LEO satellites, you can’t just trim a tree and get a good signal; you have to trim the radius of trees all around your house. And around your neighbour’s house. Otherwise the service would likely be obstructed for about two hours per day and, as one report concluded, “Starlink, judged on its capabilities right now, is simply not a real competitor” to other solutions.

So this band of sat-light is bring tossed into our skies, slashing the stars, with no working business model and a service model that is very weak.

Second reason to be concerned: we will have to pay the hidden costs of these rocket launches.

A reason that Starlink appears cheaper is that many of its costs are off-loaded. Atmospheric pollution, for example, will be significant when we are talking about hundreds more launches every month. There is an increase in collision risk with the thousands of stations riding the sky. Even the dent-free satellites will eventually fall to earth as space junk. Those parts of the earth that have the densest concentrations will have the highest impact rates. The belt with the highest danger is 50 degrees north and south, near cities like London, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Kiev, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary.

The ring of light around the earth will get worse, as satellites decay and break into smaller pieces. This space debris reflects more sunlight, forming a halo of garbage. Some six tons of material will be needed to be de-orbited every day. And because satellites tend to be made of aluminum alloys, the vapour of the particles in the upper atmosphere could destroy ozone and trigger global temperature changes.

Third reason to be concerned: Your sky will not be the same.

There will soon be 200 satellites visible in your night sky, every night. As I noted in an earlier article about this (https://barry-gander.medium.com/last-chance-to-appreciate-the-night-skies-81a9b3ae4ca4) our children and grandchildren will never know the vastness of the night sky in the same way we see it now — the way all of humankind and assorted aware life-forms have known it since the earth was born. A paper in The Astronomical Journal (https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/1538-3881/ac341b) predicts which areas will have the worst light pollution — but it will be bad everywhere.

There are other options for providing service to remote locations — options that provide better service, with sound finances and much less environmental damage. Perhaps we could put the brakes on for now and — for once — consider the trade-offs from our technology.

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I am a Canadian born in Connecticut - two strikes against me! I love geography, history and science, and I am a top political and economic writer on MEDIUM.

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Barry Gander

Barry Gander

I am a Canadian born in Connecticut - two strikes against me! I love geography, history and science, and I am a top political and economic writer on MEDIUM.

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