SpaceX’s Starlink project has kicked up a controversy even though it is still in the early pilot stage. The concept of delivering Internet services via saturation satellite coverage is innovative, and could positively disrupt global data transfer capacity and coverage. But it also will cause lots of light and radio pollution and may pose a serious potential hazard in terms of space debris. Astronomers claim that Starlink may render astronomical equipment worth billions useless, or at the least, severely impair the efficiency of both visual telescopes and radio telescopes. The scale of Starlink is typical of SpaceX founder-CEO Elon Musk’s ambitious thinking. Starlink intends to put nearly 12,000 satellites into space, creating a grid to deliver high-speed internet everywhere. The project will cost $10 billion and it will have the capacity to handle around 50 per cent of all global backhaul traffic, and 10 per cent of local high-density Internet traffic.
SpaceX launched the first 60 satellites on May 23. Reports indicate that all these 225-kg satellites have deployed solar panels, and linked to ground communications. Astronomers have complained that the new satellites are very bright, with many visible to the naked eye even in daylight. These bright, moving objects leave large streaks in the long-exposure pictures astronomers must take, thus causing severe disruption. Musk has acknowledged the issue and said that SpaceX will redesign the next series of satellites to reduce the albedo (the amount of light reflected off an object). However, as more of these new satellites go up, they will inevitably interfere with telescopes.
What is more, interference will also occur across the invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum. Starlink will broadcast radio signals that make it harder for radio telescopes to function. One solution is relocating telescopes into space. But replacing all terrestrial instruments would be a tall task. The other issue is a traffic jam with possibly catastrophic consequences. There are approximately 5,500 satellites orbiting the Earth and Starlink will triple that number. There could be a “knock-on” effect if any satellite malfunctions, or suffers a meteor hit, and falls out of orbit.
Both these risks must be taken seriously. Technological advancement should not come about at the cost of crippling huge investments in blue skies research, which is ultimately foundational for future technology. The potential for dangerous space debris is also exponentially increased by Starlink. Moreover, OneWeb, Telesat and Amazon have similar plans to provide Internet via satellite, which means the traffic jam will surely increase. Starlink presents an interesting case study. On the one hand, it and similar projects could trigger a jump in global data transfer capacity, with the positive implications of lower costs and better access for all. But on the other hand, it might seriously impede astronomical research and could potentially lead to dangerous accidents. There are rules for putting satellites into space under the Outer Space Treaty but there isn’t any international system for real enforcement, or imposing penalties. A project like Starlink should trigger a review of the processes. This is urgent since competitors will undoubtedly follow suit. How policymakers around the world respond to this project will help shape the way space is utilised.