7 OCT 2021 BY JOSHUA SOKOL
On 19 December 2019, Tony Tyson, an experimental physicist at the University of California (UC), Davis, joined a conference call with billionaire Elon Musk that helped shape the fate of starry nights on Earth.
The call was cordial but tense. Seven months earlier, Musk’s company SpaceX had livestreamed a feed of 60 satellites drifting off into space from the bay of one of the firm’s rockets. The satellites, the triumphant first wave of a project called Starlink, were built to beam down broadband internet to every corner of the globe. But as the satellites began to do laps around Earth, people looking up at night saw a string of glinting pearls as bright as the stars in the Big Dipper.
Those five dozen satellites were just the beginning. Starlink already had permission to launch 12,000 satellites, roughly six times the number of active satellites then in orbit. The next year, the company added another 30,000. Other billionaire-backed companies—Jeff Bezos’s Project Kuiper, and OneWeb, funded in part by Richard Branson—were planning comparable space internet swarms, leading to industry forecasts of more than 100,000 satellites in orbit by the end of the 2020s. In the best stargazing conditions, human eyes can perceive about 3000 twinkling stars overhead; if the planned satellites ended up as bright as the first Starlinks, they would fill future summer nights with a comparable number of creeping dots.
Almost overnight, a new arena of environmental conflict opened up. Astronomers weren’t the only ones who saw an existential threat. Environmentalists, amateur stargazers, and Indigenous leaders working to revive astronomical traditions saw an affront to the planet’s dwindling dark skies, an act as vandalistic as carving initials into a tree trunk—in front of the whole world. “From a cultural point of view, it is a desecration,” says Rangi Mātāmua, a Māori cultural astronomer at Massey University, Manawatū.