There’s an interesting dilemma developing in our night sky.
Astronomers have complained that the brightness of satellites being deployed by SpaceX are compromising views of the universe. The dilemma is that these satellites – a system called Starlink – are connecting remote areas of the entire world to the internet.
Considering the value of internet access, is it worth compromising the night sky?
Astronomers, both amateur and professional, universally agree (pardon the pun) that it’s not worth it. John Barentine of the International Dark Sky Association, told the Associated Press recently that the new push to put up low-orbit satellites demands policymakers “ … clearly define the roles and responsibilities with respect to managing that sense of orbital space as this commons that belongs to all of us.” He pointed to the innate “sense of connection” that humans have had to the universe throughout history.
On the other hand, the ability to connect remote areas and the populations that live there to the internet is vital. Think of the importance of the internet in your own life if you fail to appreciate the significance. The World Wide Web offers an endless library of resources, provides telemedicine services to remote areas, connects many of us to our finances, to online learning and so much more.
Starlink recently became available in Arizona as a pilot program to 45 residents in Tuba City, a community near the Grand Canyon in the northern region of the state. Matt Fowler, a spokesman for Coconino County, told the AP that residents who gained internet access literally cried from happiness after hooking up to Starlink. The service connects residents where other technologies fail, including microwave, fiber and copper wire, Fowler said.
An inability to access the internet will cause communities to fall behind. More than half of communities on the Navajo Nation lack any broadband access, a stark inequity and a health risk during a pandemic when students couldn’t log into online classes and people couldn’t apply for jobs from home.
Yet, is providing this access worth compromising our views of the night sky?
Sierra Vista and Cochise County have made concerted efforts to protect our night sky from light pollution. Both governments have enacted regulations that define levels of light that signs and billboards can emit and the city has been conscientious in erecting street lights and other public lighting.
After Lake Havasu state lawmaker Sonny Borelli proposed allowing bright billboards along all Arizona interstate highways a few years ago, supervisors took a strong stance against the idea, pointing directly to the value of the night sky to tourism and amateur astronomy in Cochise County.
SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb are planning hundreds of thousands of low-orbit satellites to accomplish their collective goal of high-speed internet access around the globe. To its credit, SpaceX has recently sought to minimize the impact of this effort on the night sky by changing the angle of orbit and developing a “sunshade” for its satellites.
We hope that works.
If it doesn’t, we’re not sure losing our night sky – as long as other options are available or might be in the near future – is worth providing internet service to remote areas.
We’ve been looking to the stars for eons, and the view is priceless.