Does Starlink and its worldwide internet plan more beneficial to humanity, or is astronomy and its scientific value? Read to find out.
by Maanas Shah
High-speed internet available anywhere in the world seems like a great idea, but is it worth littering the stars with thousands of satellites and impeding astronomical observations? Surely, the benefits brought by worldwide internet would be much more beneficial and practical than the ability to simply look at stars? However, one must consider the significance of hurting a branch of science practiced since ancient times. A branch that may one day propel humanity into great new possibilities and eras, as it always has in human history. Is there a way that both of these methods can coexist without hurting each other, bringing the best of both worlds to humanity?
This debate arose in May of 2019 when the prominent aerospace company, SpaceX, launched its initial batch of 60 test satellites for its plan—Starlink—to beam down high-speed internet from anywhere in the world, which will be accomplished via Starlink’s goal of creating a massive satellite constellation around Earth. Currently, SpaceX has planned to put about 12,000 satellites into orbit, but they have plans to extend that number to a staggering 42,000. This tight shell of satellites will then be able to transmit high-speed internet at an affordable price to even the most remote places on Earth.
The issue is that 12,000 satellites—let alone 42,000—is an extremely large number Currently, there is a total of only 2,666 satellites orbiting the Earth, which includes about 700 Starlink satellites that were already launched; this current total is out of all the satellites that have ever been launched by anyone on Earth. So Starlink’s satellite plans are truly a mindblowing statistic, with the potential of having a large impact. The sheer number of these satellites, paired with their natural brightness, is starting to show a noticeable effect in astronomical observations. Many astronomers have complained about the problems that the satellites would bring when trying to observe the universe from Earth.
And that’s where the Trilemma lies: is Starlink and its worldwide internet plan more beneficial to humanity, or is astronomy and its scientific value? And, is there a way that we can implement both ideas?
The SpaceX Point of View:
There’s no argument against the fact that SpaceX is going to bring some serious benefits via Starlink. Being able to bring the internet to any point on the planet is already a significant achievement itself, and producing a higher-speed internet at an affordable price is like the icing on the cake. With current operating speeds, it is possible that Starlink can make this a reality as soon as this year of 2020.
People would finally be able to have internet access where there are no cell towers or coverage, and those ranging from simple adventurers to entire rural communities could gain from this newfound ability. Rural and lower-income regions as well as developed and higher-income regions can both benefit in terms of affordability. The Internet is often quite expensive due to the state of the monopolistic industry, and the competition and outright lower pricing of Starlink will be able to lessen the costly burden of this internet access for many families.
Around 40 to 50 percent of the world does not have access to the internet due to geographical location, lack of proper infrastructure for internet, poverty, or the high cost. With its affordability, speed, and low cost. Starlink can help fix all of those issues and can reduce that percentage of non-internet users worldwide, and truly benefit humanity.
The Astronomer’s Point of View:
The practice of stargazing is an art as old as the ancient civilizations themselves. From Babylonian star catalogs to Mayan solar calendars, humans have always observed the stars for scientific and humanitarian purposes. Astronomy is not simply a pastime of people looking into telescopes to stare at random flickers of light; it’s something that’s helped humanity advance not only our knowledge on our environment, but also technology and global civilization as a whole.
Astronomy has been a key factor in many of humanity’s major accomplishments. The ability to traverse oceans with charts of the stars, to understand how seasons work, travel among the stars, and ultimately have all of this knowledge to benefit our growing civilizations. These are all examples of the benefits astronomy has offered humanity.
However, advancements like these cannot be possible with the launching of satellites. Astronomer Cliff Johnson explains how satellites usually do not ruin observations—though they must be digitally removed from observations which takes a lot of work—but Starlink satellites are a different case due to their unprecedented numbers. He states that around 15 to 20 percent of the resulting long-exposure image shot by a telescope was completely lost due to the streaks caused by the satellites in space. Johnson was surprised by this event as he has never seen anything like it. However, if SpaceX continues on its current path, this result will be mirrored to most astronomers and the interferences can affect the scientific capabilities of astronomers to make any observations at all, let alone discoveries and advancements.
Astronomy is what will help humanity explore the infinite space, and discover new, livable planets and other life forms. These things may seem to be far-fetched and for the future—and perhaps some of them are— but they can’t be possible without astronomy. Thus, anything that might impede astronomers’ abilities can put a halt on new discoveries that may be able to benefit human civilization as a whole.
Overall, astronomy is an art that is not as futile as many believe. It has allowed humans to explore whole new frontiers of exploration and eras of technologies of human civilization and will definitely continue to do so; first was being able to explore the seas it, next it will be being able to explore the stars. Therefore, acting in ways that would obstruct it, such as launching Starlink’s satellites, should be avoided for the benefit of humanity.
The Neutral Stance: A Way to Have Both:
In truth, this issue may not be as polarizing as it may seem at first glance. There are many possible ways to solve this issue, and some have even been carried out with varying degrees of success. The initial plan to reduce the interferences on astronomy was to dim the satellites so they would show very little presence on images. The resulting image was only slightly darker, and the solution was concluded to be not a practical solution by any means.
The next plans from SpaceX were to change the orientation of the satellites which would reduce the amount of light reflected, and equip them with visors to try to block the glare produced. Many astronomers showed relief and appreciation for these changes, though many, such as Jonathan McDowell, stated that they did not believe the changes would be effective in higher-level professional-grade astronomy and that there would still be a significant loss in astronomical discoveries.
Either way, only time will tell if these current attempts will be enough or if SpaceX will need to implement more substantial changes. The good news is that the company seems to be very cooperative with the concerns caused by satellites and is working to fix the issues so that both sides can benefit. Though this stance might cause more cost to the project in the end, it is justifiable as it will allow both Starlink and astronomers to make life better for people for decades to come. There is a chance, however, that the changes might not ever be enough and that astronomers will always have to deal with some disturbance, but this is perhaps a small price to pay for an affordable and high-speed worldwide internet service that will immediately be able to greatly help humanity as a whole.