The growing number of Earth-orbiting satellites has produced a scientific and cultural conundrum: Should we care more about looking up at the night sky?…
Or looking down at our phones?
That question lies at the heart of an intense debate as private companies fill the sky with tens of thousands of new satellites, resulting in “mega-constellations.” The primary example is SpaceX’s Starlink, which aims to offer worldwide Internet access by 2024. Many other corporations have their own plans for these enormous groups of satellites.
This movement to surround Earth with brightly lit machines is ostensibly about connection, bringing 5G cell service to every corner of the globe. Yet many scientists and astronomers have begun vocalizing their opposition to telecommunications networks that block our view of the final frontier.
If this capitalist attitude becomes dominant in space as well as Earth, the impacts are as varied as they are disastrous, scientists say. Light from satellites has begun interfering with the Hubble telescope, prompting astronomers to consider moving it further into space and away from the visual noise.
Lovers of the outdoors want to preserve a natural view of the sky — uninterrupted by the streaks of satellites now more common than shooting stars.
And in a moving polemic published in the Ecological Citizen this month, scientist Kate McFarland made an environmental argument, positing that increased brightness at night could threaten delicate ecosystems throughout the planet.
“Perhaps most insidious of all, human tolerance of this novel threat to the night sky seems to betray a worrisome lack of reverence and respect for the more-than-human universe,” wrote McFarland, Deputy Director of The Rewilding Institute and Center Associate at the Ohio State University Center for Ethics and Human Values.
Rising concern over light pollution
In 1994, an earthquake caused a massive blackout in Los Angeles, revealing the rarely glimpsed night sky to millions of residents. Many of them panicked when they looked up and saw a huge silvery cloud hovering above them. Some called 911 and the nearby Griffith Observatory.
They were looking at the Milky Way, which they had evidently never seen.
“Since so many of us never see a non-light-polluted night sky from one year to the next, a mythology about what the people think a true star-filled sky looks like has emerged,” Ed Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory, wrote of the event.
But unlike the light pollution of a metropolis like LA, the brightness created by satellites can’t be avoided by driving to the Nevada desert. In 2019, when SpaceX began its Starlink initiative, the launch of 60 satellites “photobombed” the Alpha Monocerotids, a rare meteor shower recorded from the “dark sky” island of La Palma.
In an ironic twist, that island served as the birthplace of the Declaration in Defense of the Night Sky and Right to Starlight. Written in 2007, it states that “an unpolluted night sky…is the inalienable right of humankind.”
Satellite mega-constellations like Starlink threaten to deprive all Earth’s residents of that right. And while these events reveal how distant humans have become from the natural world, light pollution could have far more devastating effects on plants and animals.
Nature needs darkness
In her Ecological Citizen essay, “An ecocentric case against satellite constellations,” McFarland cites research showing that increasing light levels could disrupt the natural world.
Light pollution from cities confuses migratory birds, often drawing them to urban centers, where they’re more vulnerable to threats from humans. Artificial light sources can also cause confusion and misdirection for species that rely on the moon for migration (such as the heart-breaking deaths of sea turtle hatchlings chronicled in Planet Earth II).
Also, humans are far from the first or only animals to navigate by celestial bodies. Species ranging from harbor seals to the large yellow underwing moth to the African dung beetle use stars and the Milky Way for nighttime travel guidance. Much like the tragic fate of those sea turtles, they’re often distracted by artificial light, leading them to danger and conflict.
But perhaps the most fascinating example cited in McFarland’s piece is that of Cornell scientist Stephen Emlen. In the 1960s, Emlen placed indigo buntings inside a planetarium with a false display of the night sky, including missing constellations and a displaced Polaris, or northern star. The birds couldn’t orient themselves correctly in those conditions. When the time came for their autumn migration, they went in the wrong direction.
“There is little reason for an ecocentrist to demand a 5G connection anywhere on Earth,” McFarland wrote. “Is this really necessary for the 71% of Earth’s surface that consists of water? Or in the half of Earth’s terrestrial surface that many of us propose to protect for wild nature? Surely not. We must instead turn our attention to shrinking our societies — and, with it, our internet and cellular data infrastructure — before we colonize all of Heaven as well as Earth.”