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Starlink at CTIO
A stream of Starlink satellites passes overhead during an exposure at the Cerro Tololo International Observatory in Chile in November, shortly after the launch of a second set of 60 satellites. (credit: Clarae Martínez-Vázquez )

You can’t take the sky from me

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Despite the very earnest, practical, and well-informed advice of international space governance experts, outer space is becoming the new Wild West. Astronomers will merely be the first to pay the price, as profit-seeking entities thoughtlessly overpopulate the heavens, countries jockey for position in an orbital arms race, and the Kessler Syndrome becomes a mathematical inevitability. Without strict, universally adhered-to standards for orbital activities, humanity will soon find itself locked in a hothouse with no windows.

On November 18th, Dr. Clarae Martínez-Vázquez, an astronomer at the Cerro Tololo International Observatory (CTIO) in Chile, tweeted about how SpaceX’s second phase of low Earth orbit satellites had interfered with observations. There were several follow-up articles on the controversy in the mainstream media, focused variously on what these satellite constellations were for, how they differed from previous efforts, and how their rollout would threaten ground-based observation. After the initial public outcry, coverage has petered out to a trickle. But in the astronomy world, the war for the stars has just begun, pitting scientists, corporate interests, and regulatory bodies against each other.

In the astronomy world, the war for the stars has just begun, pitting scientists, corporate interests, and regulatory bodies against each other.

In 1967 the major spacefaring countries signed a UN document called the Outer Space Treaty (OST). This is what all subsequent space law is founded upon. Above all, it stated that space doesn’t belong to anyone, and that countries are free to put scientific or commercial or even military objects in orbit without interference, excepting weapons of mass destruction. There was also an understanding that countries were responsible for entities under their jurisdiction, and that they must communicate with each other about important things that happen in space. Although the treaty is not topically comprehensive, especially considering advancements since then, the diplomatic achievement seems utterly unrepeatable in today’s world. Then again, only three countries had launch capability, and the number of active satellites could be listed on a single piece of paper. Things are very different now.

The orbital arena is not exactly “filling up” nor is it likely to, even in the next 100 years. But it is becoming increasingly populated, and increasingly chaotic, making the need for a universal, automated tracking system absolutely mandatory. Right now, there are about 2,000 working satellites in orbit and a couple tens of thousands more catalogued pieces of junk, mostly old satellites and cast-off materials from launches. Tiny untrackable pieces of trash are a bigger problem. The space age is only 60 years old, but we’ve already left our mark on the heavens in the form of more than a hundred million itty-bitty pieces of junk, all of it swirling around the Earth at immense speeds. Size hardly matters when you’re traveling 25,000 kilometers per hour; a fleck of paint can knock a satellite off-kilter.

The increasing junk orbiting our planet is due to the almost total lack of regulations in the 20th century. The assumption was that garbage isn’t a concern in the void. Outer space may be practically infinite, but the space around the Earth is not. Now there are guidelines about what is sent up, how high, and for how long, and most countries follow them, because it is in everyone’s interest that Earth orbit be orderly. It is not fear-mongering to say that the more we put out there, the more likely a collisional cascade is to occur. It is a simple numbers game. Surely leaders like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who are highly forward-thinking individuals, can see how a crowded and unmanageable sky will hinder their aspirations for the Moon and Mars. Surely they can see how crippling ground-based astronomy will cripple their own personal dreams of asteroid mining, human settlement, and deep space exploration. Instead of jumping into the free-for-all, they need to be leaders and corral the rest into a union. There is precedent for this.

There are 10,000 planes in the air at any given moment, and a vast international effort goes into watching them. The same precision and expertise must be applied to space. If not, it will only be a matter of time before one satellite careens into another, creating a cascade of debris—the Kessler Syndrome—that could render some orbits unusable for all. This is not hyperbole, but a very reasonable outcome if mandatory, worldwide safeguards are not put into place.

The European Space Agency says they hope to have an automated debris and constellation avoidance system in place by 2030, but what will happen in the meantime? What about the massive fleets of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites like SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb, Telesat, and CASIC will be launching in the next ten years? If all their plans come to fruition we could have as many as 50,000 operational satellites in LEO by 2030. The FCC and the Air Force are currently responsible for different aspects of permissions and tracking for objects under the jurisdiction of the USA. Surely the powers that be won’t let all this havoc be unleashed until a proper “Outer Space Traffic Control” can be organized. Or maybe they’ll just twiddle their thumbs and blame each other while the skies burn. As for the rest of the world, we have no choice but to rely on their goodwill, that they will abide by the guidelines set by the UN and regulatory bodies like the International Telecommunication Union.

International space law is a strange realm of voluntary guidelines, polite advice, and suggestions, regardless of the fact that the deeds of solitary actors can have widespread ramifications. The OST has inadvertently presented a conundrum to lawmakers: if no one can own any part of space, no one has any jurisdiction over it either. And if no one has jurisdiction, powerful players can do whatever they want. There are currently no limits as to how many objects a corporation or country can send into space, and no universal required standards for certain aspects of satellite construction, such as; the ability to deorbit and maneuver, minimum launch failure rates, and designs that minimize disruption to science. But there should be.

There are currently no limits as to how many objects a corporation or country can send into space, and no universal required standards for certain aspects of satellite construction. But there should be.

Does anyone relish the idea of China sending up their own 40,000 satellites into LEO? Does anyone believe they will give a proper accounting to the world as to what all those objects are doing, what their payloads are, whether they are responsibly constructed, whether they will abide by frequency and design restrictions, and whether they will be at all transparent with their own tracking system? The answer is that they won’t do any of these things unless they have to. In the absence of normal relations, all we can rely on is for players to protect their own interests. But self-interest is not a sufficient protection against disaster. Without worldwide cooperation, all these grand telecommunications efforts will be self-defeating, and our dark night skies, the future of space travel, and astronomy will be collateral damage.

Most of the attention in the media has been focused on the publicized interference at the CTIO in Chile. But the telescope that will have the most trouble with satellite swarms isn’t even operating yet. The Vera Rubin Observatory (formerly Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) was proposed in 2001, construction began in 2007, and it is slated to be finished in 2022. It is a wide-field survey reflecting telescope that will photograph the entire available sky every few nights. Dave Clements, an extragalactic astronomer at University College London, explains the challenges megaconstellations will pose to this observatory:

It has a bigger mirror and larger field of view, so it will be more sensitive and affected more severely. Current predictions suggest the LSST could lose a significant amount of observing time, especially at the start and end of each night. The parts of the image inundated by satellite trails will have reduced sensitivity in the affected areas, and thus either make observations less efficient, or the data less uniform and harder to interpret. This will cost money both in operational time (an hour on a large ground based telescope is worth between $3,000–6,000) and in the additional researcher effort needed to sort out less uniform data contaminated by satellites.

Optical astronomy has been getting the lion’s share of the attention in this controversy, but radio astronomy is threatened as well. Clements explains:

Radio telescopes generally operate in preserves where mobile phones are banned, to prevent interference in the frequencies they observe. But satellite constellations like Starlink will be continuously broadcasting over a large chunk of the spectrum. Depending on the construction of the transmitters, there may also be leaks at a wide range of other frequencies. While fainter than the main transmissions, these will still be powerful enough to swamp astronomical signals.

Fortunately, radio astronomers have a long-standing advocate on their side. More than one hundred years before the OST was signed, the International Telegraph Union (ITU) was formed to coordinate the shared global use of the radio spectrum. Now called the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), it is a specialized agency of the United Nations that is responsible for issues that concern communication technology, and is the oldest global international organization in the world. Originally tasked with implementing basic principles for international telegraphy, this group now manages the international radiofrequency spectrum and satellite orbit resources. This means that they are a kind of middleman in situations where the orbital activities of countries or corporations might interfere with radio astronomy. They operate under a legal framework called the ITU Radio Regulations, the ITU international treaty governing the use of radio frequencies. According to Alexandre Vallet, the Chief of the Space Services Department at ITU’s Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R):

This framework contains internationally-agreed procedures where ITU Member States ensure that the various users of radio frequencies cooperate to ensure interference-free operations of radio systems. The novelty brought by the Starlink satellites on this issue is not related to the frequencies they are using. There is currently a very large number of geostationary satellites using the same frequencies, without harmfully interfering with adjacent radio astronomy observations, demonstrating that the ITU radio standards have until now succeeded in striking the appropriate balance between radio astronomy protection and satellite operations. Starlink’s satellite system is novel because of the extent of their occupancy of the sky by these satellites.

Without across-the-board and universally enforced regulatory controls, astronomy is set to lose in these negotiations. What is their bargaining chip, exactly, in a battle for the skies?

Geostationary satellites have always utilized frequencies necessary to radio astronomy, but the inference has until now been manageable, because these objects are fixed compared to the Earth. Radio astronomers can simply point their telescopes elsewhere. But with large constellations of non-geostationary satellites, this will not be sufficient, because the swarms are not limited to a fixed region of the sky. Radio astronomers are rightly concerned about the presence of Starlink and other large satellite groups, because if these short periods of inaccessibility are often repeated, what portion of time, if any, will remain for their observations? This is the issue that Martínez-Vázquez was raising when she reported that CTIO had lost five minutes of time because of Starlink. But the ITU-R is not responsible for regulating the brightness of satellites, which was what interfered with the CTIO’s observations.

“To my knowledge, no international organization regulates the brightness of satellites,” Vallet said. “Because it has never been an issue until now. ITU is the UN agency for information and communication technology and therefore also for satellites, but is not a regulator for all satellite matters per se.”

Visual light is just another wavelength, and so it seems a natural extension for the ITU-R to take on the management of satellite reflectivity. They already have a robust system of requirements for radio frequencies, balancing the needs of radio astronomy against the interests of countries and telecom providers. Technological advancements now necessitate that optical astronomers receive similar protections. The ITU-R is best placed on the world stage to assist and negotiate on behalf of this field. More to the point, if they don’t, who will? The exact mechanism by which they try and manage the conflicting interests of academic and commercial groups in radio would be applicable to optical astronomy. Under the current system, academic ventures are prioritized over profit-seeking entities.

“These protection levels are defined based on the needs of radio astronomy and are not relaxed depending on the interfering system,” Vallet said. “In order to meet these protection levels, constellations of several thousands of satellites may have to implement improved filtering technologies in order to meet the radio astronomy protection levels. ITU-R standards allow us… to derive the maximum levels that the Starlink satellites must not exceed to ensure sufficient time is available for radio astronomy stations. The exact computation of these levels depends on the technical and operational features of the radio telescope to be protected and on the shape of the satellite constellation, so they are usually computed based on discussions between the satellite operator and radio astronomers.”

In other words, the telescopes and the satellite operators have to work together. All the telescopes and astronomy organizations and universities in the world have already made it clear that they are willing, even desperate, to work with operators towards a solution. And companies like SpaceX and OneWeb have put out their own statements, saying they don’t want to interfere with scientific research. But without across-the-board and universally enforced regulatory controls, astronomy is set to lose in these negotiations. What is their bargaining chip, exactly, in a battle for the skies? The only organization in the world with an equal place at the table might be NASA, and they have been silent on the issue of large satellite constellations. J.D. Harrington, a public affairs officer at NASA, was only willing to say, “Your query covers responsibilities that span several Federal agencies (i.e. NASA, FAA, FCC, DoD, etc.). It would be inappropriate for NASA to speak on behalf of the entire U.S. Government.”

Satellite technology is new, so regulation has sprung up in an organic, random fashion as needed. But we are now in a place where responsibility for all the various aspects, such as deployment, design, and maintenance, are spread out so diffusely, that the main players, even just in the USA (i.e. NASA, FAA, FCC, DoD, etc.) can opine that such and such is neither their fault, nor their problem. Before satellite management can be standardized across the world, every country has to do the work of centralizing their space operations into a single agency. In America, NASA is best placed, in terms of expertise, to be the core of such a program. Every astronomer in the world is looking to NASA to save the field. But will they?

There is a certain, extremely unsympathetic segment of the population who scoff at concerned stargazers in this standoff. These are likely not the sort of people who have ever spent a moment of their lives pondering the vast infinitude of space. But fans of Elon Musk and his space aspirations are also split on the issue. We want humanity to venture out into the stars, and here is a man who is finally laying the groundwork. But at what cost?

Constellation apologists have argued, among other things, that it is no big deal, that the devices won’t be visible to the naked eye, and that they will be moving up in their orbits and won’t continue to interfere. They are wrong on all counts.

There is also a humanitarian argument for satellite swarms. The Internet has become a utility, yet half of the world doesn't have easy access to it. This deprivation correlates strongly with poor outcomes, and so it is only reasonable that we attempt to even the playing field. Starlink is the first major entrant in the race, and Musk claims it will eventually bring Internet to the whole world. But the price of the solution needn't be sky-high. Against the advice of astronomers, these devices are massive, reflective, numerous, and in very low orbits. None of these things were necessary. They were convenient choices which were universally decried, even as early as the design phase. The naysayers were ignored, as prophets always are.

Less than a week after the second set of satellites were launched in November, the consequences were plain as day, and exactly as predicted; Starlink is brighter than most of the stars in the sky, and leave trails which render observational data useless, just as astronomers said it would. If the constellation were fainter, smaller, or slower, the situation would be at least manageable. Astronomers are already experts at dealing with the occasional satellite, accustomed to throwing out frames with inconvenient streaks. But there was nothing they could do with the data ruined by Starlink.

In response to the worldwide outcry, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said that “no one thought this would happen.” This is completely untrue. Astronomers have been warning about this exact situation since the 1990s. Nicholas Suntzeff, the Directory of the Astronomy Department at Texas A&M University, gave a TEDx talk about it in 2013. The IAU issued a statement on their concerns in June, after the first batch of Starlink satellites were launched.

Constellation apologists have argued, among other things, that it is no big deal, that the devices won’t be visible to the naked eye, and that they will be moving up in their orbits and won’t continue to interfere. They are wrong on all counts. Cynics might shrug their shoulders and say, "What's five lost minutes on a telescope? Nothing." But it's not nothing to the group that requested that time, perhaps many months in advance, and may have no more than a few hours on the telescope. A “white-out” like this could be the difference between a discovery or no discovery, a paper or no paper, a good PhD dissertation or a bad one. To have any amount of precious time lost is a tragedy. More to the point, it’s not just five minutes. These satellites aren’t geosynchronous. LEO satellites can travel around the Earth once every 90 minutes. There will be variability in the amount of time lost, more near twilight and sunrise, and every time they loop it will be in a slightly different location. But how long will the whiteouts be, and at what increments, when the population is at 12,000 or even 42,000, as SpaceX has proposed?

Didier Queloz, one of the winners of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics, noted in a recent talk at Cambridge University that if Starlink had been around 25 years ago, he might not have discovered the first exoplanet. What future discoveries will these orbiting swarms now prevent? As Ethan Siegel mentioned in his Forbes article, there are things that SpaceX can do. They were advised before the launch to, at the very least, paint these satellites black. But they didn’t, because this creates a technical challenge with overheating. Remember, there are no regulations concerning satellite reflectivity. So SpaceX has proceeded, thus far, to send up over a hundred shiny satellites into LEO and they have done exactly what astronomers said they would: they hurt astronomy. And barring some kind of injunction, Elon Musk says that he’s going to keep doing it, sending up a fresh batch every few weeks, starting with a set launched last week.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. The satellites’ albedos can be reduced. Real-time trajectories could be posted to a global satellite tracking database. Assistive software could be developed and freely given to observatories to help them scrub pollution from their data. No one has to be a loser here, not astronomers, not rural internet users, and not telecom billionaires. There has been some discussion by SpaceX about such efforts, including an experimental coating on one satellite (of 60) launched last week. But will it be enough?

Perhaps a reasonable gesture on the part of Starlink, OneWeb, Amazon, and all the other orbital occupiers would be to finance one new space telescope for, say, every 100 satellites they put in LEO. Regulators could even make this a requirement.

History tells us that industries do not self-regulate unless they have to. All over the world, corporations of every type, whether farming or automotive or textile or energy, have a pattern of pushback against safety and environmental stewardship requirements. And the orbital oligarchs will not give a flying star for obscuring the heavens until they are forced to. SpaceX could lead the way in responsible stewardship of the sky. Perhaps this was all a terrible misunderstanding they are desperate to fix. But if not, what then? Will a class action lawsuit on behalf of every single observatory, museum, and university in the world convince them of the error of their ways? These satellites could materially damage the livelihoods and research of hundreds, perhaps thousands of scientists. On the other hand, this is a multitrillion-dollar industry. Perhaps companies will be content to pay astronomers for their lost time and send them on their way. Perhaps numbering the stars will become a thing of the past.

For thousands of years the universe was closed to us. But a mere four centuries ago the telescope was invented and the door opened a crack. Now very soon, if these modern-day robber barons overpopulate the sky, stargazing will never be the same. The repercussions are chilling. If we can’t properly see the stars, we can’t learn from them. If space isn’t safe, we can’t venture out. And then where will we be? Confined to the cradle, when our future is out there.

It is no small irony that the space age was built upon the hard work of generations of physicists and astronomers, work which could now come to a grinding halt. Cue the constellation apologists and their script on the “poor, huddling masses without Internet.” This is bunk. Companies are not seeding the heavens out of the goodness of their hearts. And they have few detailed plans to actually deliver Internet to unserved locations, nor to give it away to people who can’t afford it. Everyone wants the world to be connected. But we have to do it right.

Those who claim that astronomers can just use space telescopes are missing the point. Ground telescopes are the great equalizer. They are everywhere and anyone can use them. Thousands of schools and universities and foundations all over the world use them continuously for educational and research purposes. Incredible amounts of scholarship are produced from radio, optical, and infrared devices that are right around the corner. We hone and develop technologies for space here on the ground, first.

Space telescopes are also extremely limited in size, and therefore sensitivity and angular resolution. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) consists of 66 huge radio antennas spread across the Chilean desert. We can’t build something like that in space today. The few space telescopes we do have cost billions of dollars to build and launch, and are accessible only to a handful of astronomers. If space observation becomes the only way to explore the universe, it would be a huge step backwards for the field, back to the days when astronomy was an elite, exclusive profession.

Space telescopes are awesome, though. Musk had a very defensive tweet where he mentioned that Earth’s atmosphere makes observation difficult. This is correct. Perhaps a reasonable gesture on the part of Starlink, OneWeb, Amazon, and all the other orbital occupiers would be to finance one new space telescope for, say, every 100 satellites they put in LEO. Regulators could even make this a requirement. It would certainly help to mitigate the damage. Even if corporations adopt an attitude of perfect collaboration and graciousness, astronomers will still see a good portion, maybe all of their time and effort whittled permanently away.

It is not an exaggeration to say that if Musk makes good on his threat to send 10,000 more satellites into orbit, it will destroy ground-based astronomy. People don’t want to believe this, but it is true. Never in the history of the world has a field of study just been erased. This is not like the phasing out of the abacus or the typewriter. The stars are the inheritance of the human race and no one has the right to take them from us. Is there a greater resource? That we could lose access to a dark night sky, that our ground-based technologies be made suddenly defunct, is almost unthinkable. Stargazing is a discipline that should exist in perpetuity. It is as deeply human an endeavor as music or language or sport.

There’s disruptions and then there’s destruction. Imagine a new water purification process that somehow made humans unable to draw. And it gets rolled out even though its side-effects are known, and even though some tweaks could prevent the damage while allowing the use of the innovation. “Do we really need art?” the apologists would say, (not one artist among them), and, “Don’t be so selfish. Don’t you want people to have clean water?”

There are some who say the oncoming storm doesn’t matter, that the average person will still be able to look up and see the stars, still be able to bask in the greatest wonder of our world, the night sky. But there’s more to the stars than what meets the eye. Imagine if an energy startup created an artificial bacterium and seeded the upper atmosphere with it. It somehow captures sunlight and now the world has clean energy in abundance. But the downside is that the world is now cast in permanent cloud cover. We shall pretend no negative effects arise from this excepting one, that the stars are never visible ever again. There are those, even then, who would claim it an acceptable loss. I imagine they would be the same types who now heedlessly cheer on megaconstellations and laugh in the face of fearful astronomy-lovers. Because what have the stars ever done for the human race, really? What do we need them for, in our everyday lives? The catch is that if our imaginary startup was willing to wait, to take responsibility, honestly explore consequences, to mitigate losses to other parties, and to cut into their own profits, we could retain both the heavens and the Earth.

Common-sense regulation could head off this astronomical apocalypse. There is precedent for this with airspace management. We all have a vested interest in the proper stewardship of our world, even as its outer edges are pushed inexorably outward. Governments need to weigh the benefits of laissez-faire orbital policies against the real and present danger to scholarship and scientific advancement. We are all better off, wiser, and more cognizant of our place in this vast and beautiful universe because of astronomy, an ancient, honorable, and universally beloved field of study.

Here is a gift for the leaders of the world, a task more non-partisan than any other which has come before: protect our skies. Humanity need not be impotent in the face of a new breed of robber barons, as they literally steal the stars from our eyes. They must be limited. They must act thoughtfully with a mind to justice. They must make reparations for lost observation time and undo their mistakes, i.e. deorbiting devices that are a constant, unmanageable menace. They must think of the big picture, of the future. We have the power right now to safeguard observation and shape space policy, to ensure that the darkest chapters of human history do not play out, again, on a cosmic scale. How can we allow it? Our children and grandchildren, and those who come after will lose the chance to study the greater universe. And all of us here today will be forced to watch as our future is shrunk to nothing but a pale blue dot.

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