TThe natural serenity of the night sky is a test for all of us. Everyone alive today looks at the same stars, regardless of where they are on this planet. But the connection is more profound because, besides our short lives, the stars are immortal. Shakespeare saw the same stars in the same patterns as we do. So did Galileo, Columbus, Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, and the first human ancestor searching for curiosity. The night sky is nothing short of our common human heritage.

But in the last year, something happened that might change this viewpoint forever. On May 23, 2019, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched 60 satellites from a single rocket. The satellites were the first in what was planned Swell” From Thousands of satellites That would bring internet coverage to the entire planet.

A day later, Marco Langbroek, a satellite tracker from the Netherlands, captured a video of the satellites passing through the sky – and what he saw blew his mind. “It started with two faint, flashing bodies moving in the field of vision,” He wrote on his blog. Then, after a few dozen seconds, my jaw fell as the ‘train’ entered my field of view. I couldn’t help but shout “OAAAAAH !!!!” (followed by some offensive words…) ”. Post a video of What he saw.

since then, SpaceX Hundreds of other satellites have launched from Starlink, and although watching these satellites pass over the sky has become a new hobby for some, others are concerned about cultural relics and the way they could affect our relationship with the night sky. If left unchecked, we may never again experience the vision of the still silent universe with our naked eyes. Instead, you’ll always be crossed with shiny, man-made objects.

“In two generations, no one will be left alive remembering the night sky before these satellites. They will have originated with Starlink and other proposed massive stars as part of their visualization of the night sky.” Says Alice Gorman of Flinders University in South Australia, a pioneer in the emerging field of science. Space and heritage archeology, I think that’s a fundamental change.

“One of the reasons people appreciate the night sky is because it gives you a sense of transcendence and connection to the universe, and inspires contemplation on the meaning of life and the sheer range of stars and galaxies. This seems to be an experience that people really appreciate and so people have argued that the right to the night sky is kind of fundamental to being a human being.” , Says Gorman.

What gives this discussion even more urgency is that the more researchers and companies think about mega-towers, the more they realize what they can do with them. Telecommunications, navigation, weather forecasting, climate monitoring and other Earth observations and space science – the frontiers are simply the limits of people’s imagination.

Jordi Puig-Suari holds CubeSat, which he invented with Stanford professor Bob Twigs.
Jordi Puig-Suari holds CubeSat, which he invented with Stanford professor Bob Twigs. Photo: California Polytechnic State University
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By all accounts, it is an exceptional moment in the history of our study and use of outer space. But what are the consequences?

Big stars are made possible by miniaturizing technology, and at the forefront of this engine is CubeSat, which was developed by Bob Twiggs of Stanford University and Jordi Puig-Soari of California Polytechnic State University in the 1990s.

CubeSats are small satellites. Its smallest size is only 10 x 10 x 10 cm. “The volume was driven by the size of the Beanie Baby box they had on hand,” says Scott Williams, Program Director at SRI International, who was himself developing small satellites in the late 1980s. Then he began working with Twiggs on early ideas for CubeSats. At that time, no one was thinking of massive stars.

“It was purely educational, getting students to launch something into space during the time frame for getting a PhD,” says Samson Phan, chief research engineer at SRI International.

Traditionally, satellites are the size of a vehicle. They are very expensive to make, and take many years to design, build and launch. The goal of the CubeSat program was for the student team to be able to produce a working satellite in a few years that could transmit a radio signal like the first satellite, the Russia satellite. Sputnik 1. But from the initial idea of ​​developing an educational resource, a grand vision soon formed.

Williams and his colleague at the time Victor Aguero saw both analogous to the way in which microcomputers became a “crash” that revolutionized technology. The vision was: Can you do more with fewer resources? Instead of building a gorgeous, trillion dollar satellite, can you get great capacity from a whole host of much cheaper satellites? ” He says.

After his doctorate, Williams and Aguero moved to SRI International, where Williams focused on developing and exploiting small satellites in general and CubeSats in particular. And now the fruits of those actions are already showing. The small satellite market is exploding.

From 1998 to 2012, more than 120 small satellites were launched. In the next two years, that number doubled. The number now operates at around 500 small satellites per year, most of which consist of Starlink units. Although they are not CubeSats, they apply the same principle as a small and simple satellite that can be mass-produced to keep the cost down.

In July, the UK government He bought a £ 400m stake in OneWeb, Which plans to launch its own constellation of 650 small satellites to provide internet and satellite navigation services, after UK delisting from the European Union’s Galileo project Because of Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Besides communications and navigation, small satellites open up a whole new world of scientific investigation. Europeans Void The agency (ESA) now has a dedicated team of people looking at missions around Earth and in deep space that are being enabled by CubeSats.

But despite all these promises, there are some big problems with massive stars. One of the largest space debris. If satellites collide in orbit, they produce clouds of debris that can destroy other satellites, potentially triggering a chain reaction known as Kessler’s syndrome. As the number of satellites in orbit increases dramatically, the risk will increase.

“Suddenly, there is an increasing burden on our management of space traffic, which is, at best, in an early stage of existence,” says Hugh Lewis, an expert on space debris at the University of Southampton.

An early illustration of this problem appeared in September 2019 when the first batch of Starlink satellites were found on a collision course with the European Space Agency’s EOLS 481 million Earth observation satellite. Due to a misunderstanding between the two organizations, it wasn’t even half-orbit before the potential ESA crashed Move their satellites Out of the danger zone.

“There is a lot of unknowns and there is a lot of uncertainty associated with things like space safety,” Lewis says. “We don’t have the rules of the road yet.” But the good news, he says, is that nearly all of the commercial space companies he’s spoken to are aware of these issues and are doing their best to address them.

But then there are astronomers. Perhaps they will lose more than the massive planets because satellites will forever cross their fields of vision, hurting their ability to collect data from the distant universe. Take, for example, the Vera C Rubin Observatory, an American funded facility in Chile. This gigantic telescope has been in development for over 20 years and costs millions of dollars. It is designed for The deepest night sky survey ever begins in 2022But now astronomers are wondering how to deal with the large number of Starlink satellites that will be scattered through their images every night.

Nanosatellites in space.
A whole new world of scientific investigations … nanosatellites in space. Photo: Science History Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Robert Massey, Deputy Executive Director of the Royal Astronomical Society, has shown particular interest in the consequences and recognized that it is a complex problem. “I realize that there are multiple uses of space, and that astronomers are not the only community that has an interest in that,” he says. “On the other hand, you can also argue that private companies are not the only organizations with a stake in the now booming commercialization of LEO. They have to be organized, just as they are on the surface of the Earth, in the atmosphere, in the seas, etc.”

To the credit of SpaceX, it hasn’t turned a blind eye to these concerns. In response to the impending mistake with the European Space Agency, the company claims to have made changes to its communications system. In addition, as a result of conversations with the Royal Astronomical Society and others, SpaceX has blackouted the latest constellations of spacecraft and installed a “shield” that prevents sunlight from falling onto the bulk of the satellite. With these two modifications, satellites should only be visible to the naked eye when they are in their final orbits – although that won’t prevent them from damaging the vision of anyone using even the smallest telescope.

While some may find this unbearable, others see things completely differently. “People tend to split into two camps,” says Gorman, “Some are like,” We’ve got to this, we’ve now put a lot of things in space and they’re going to be in our faces all the time, “and the other kind of people are incredibly excited.”

Elon Musk.
People tend to split into two camps: Doubtful and Extremely Excited … SpaceX founder Elon Musk. Photo: Steve Nicius / Reuters

Williams is one of those. “The stars are beautiful and the planets are beautiful but if you were trying to capture an eight-year-old he had to move. I remember the first time I saw a man-made object pass through the sky. It was amazing.” “I think as the size of these constellations increases, and these kinds of images become easily accessible to young people, I think they will look at these things and ask: What can we do with that?”

In fact, there were many people who were already delighted with the sight of Starlink trains, flooding social media with images and exclamation points. But Massey believes this is driven more by the value of the novelty and that over time, the interest may wane. “If people see a series of bright satellites moving across the sky, they are of course very interested in that. I think the problem is when you have a sky completely full of them, even if it is weaker. It’s a bit like a blue sky full of planes and jets.” Massey says: “We don’t necessarily see that as something to celebrate.”

Human history has been one in which we regularly reevaluate our connection to the night sky: from the heavenly realm of the gods, to the place of mysterious influence on our lives, to the world of inaccessible celestial bodies, to its modern world. Incarnation as a world of destinations we might one day colonize. The continued presence of visible satellites may be just another of these tipping points.

Whatever camp you fall into, there is no doubt that this is a radical change of what was previously an unadulterated way of contemplating nature and our place in it. Only time will tell what the consequences of this change will be.

Stuart Clark’s latest book, Under the Night: How stars Owns Form History mankind, Posted on October 1 by Guardian Faber