Are Elon Musk’s ‘megaconstellations’ a blight on the night sky?


Miniature satellites open up a world of technological possibility. But experts say they degrade the astronomical landscape.

Stuart Clark, Sat 12 Sep 2020 17.00 BST

The natural serenity of the night sky is a touchstone for all of us. Everyone alive today looks at the same stars no matter where they are located on the planet. But the connection is more profound because, next to our brief lives, the stars are immortal. Shakespeare saw the same stars in the same patterns that we do. So did Galileo, Columbus, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra and the first human ancestor to look up in curiosity. The night sky is nothing short of our common human heritage.

Last year, however, something happened that might change that view for ever. On 23 May 2019, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX launched 60 small satellites from a single rocket. The satellites were the first in what is planned to be a “megaconstellation” of thousands of satellites that will bring internet coverage to the entire planet.


“In a couple of generations there will be no one left alive who remembers the night sky before these satellites. They will have grown up with Starlink and the other proposed megaconstellations as part of their conception of the night sky. I think that’s a radical change,” says Alice Gorman of Flinders University, South Australia, a pioneer in the emerging field of space archaeology and heritage.

“One of the reasons people value the night sky is because it gives you a sense of transcendence and connectedness to the universe, and inspires contemplation about the meaning of life and the massive scale of stars and galaxies. That seems to be an experience that people really value and so people have argued that a right to the night sky is kind of fundamental to being human,” says Gorman.

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Stuart Clark’s latest book, Beneath the Night: How the Stars Have Shaped the History of Humankind, is published on 1 October by Guardian Faber

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