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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Is this getting out of hand?

14 February 2020

A week or two ago, Kiwis were wowed by a string of satellites that swept across the evening skies like a row of glistening pearls.

Newspapers were filled with images of the silvery specks and social media came alive with chatter about the unworldly spectacle.

These were of course another cluster of satellites launched by SpaceX as part of its StarLink network, an intiative that promises to bring internet connectivity to almost every square metre of the globe.

Already however, astronomers are getting a bit bitchy about the unintended consequences of littering the night skies with such shiny objects. They claim that the added light pollution will make their observations more difficult and prone to error.

So far there have been just four launches, each deploying around 60 StarLink satellites -- but a whole lot more are planned -- and now Facebook is also about to launch its own network based on similar technology.

That highly objective and reliable source of news (cough, cough) The Daily Mail is reporting that Facebook's own satellite network could start launching as early as next month.

Of course we need to be clear that space is big, very big.

To quote HHGTG:

"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space"

However, the area of space around our planet in which satellites hold non-geosynchronous orbits is a lot smaller than the rest of space so although there'll still be huge distances between these thousands of internet satellites, it is still going to become rather busy; comparatively speaking.

If astronomers have problems with the few hundred birds already forming the first part of the StarLink network, what are they going to do once there are three such networks whizzing around over our heads, each of which contains as many as 40,000 satellites?

Seriously, I kid you not, the final phase of Starlink could result in as many as 42,000 satellites being placed into orbit from this one company alone. The Wikipedia page for Starlink states:

As of 8 February 2020, SpaceX has launched 242 satellites. They plan to launch 60 more per Falcon 9 flight, with launches as often as every three weeks in 2020. In total, nearly 12,000 satellites will be deployed by the mid-2020s, with a possible later extension to 42,000

What will this do to our view of the night sky, especially if the other two players (Facebook and One Web) launch similar numbers of birds.

Our view of space from the surface of the Earth might end up being as if we were stuck inside a mirrored diso-ball with the twinkling of satellites obscuring any chance of peering out through the curtains.

How will we spot potential "killer asteroids" with all this visual noise clouding our view?

I really can't believe that the organisations responsible for managing the space-space around the planet have effectively given companies like SpaceX the go-ahead for such littering.

Yes, having ubiquitous internet connectivity everywhere on the planet is "nice" but is it really more essential to be able to update your Facebook page whilst trecking through the high mountans of Nepal than it is to observe and learn from the Universe around us?

I wonder if our grandchildren's children will never recall a time when the night sky was simply filled with stars that were not of our making.

But hey, profits before science... right?

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