Raumfahrt - SpaceX satellite launch raises questions: Who owns the sky? Everyone or the wealthy few?


SpaceX launched 60 satellites last month that now swarm around our planet like bees around a hive. It’s the first phase of Elon Musk’s ambitious Starlink project that will eventually send thousands of satellites into orbit to create a worldwide broadband network. Other companies also want in — Amazon, Telesat and OneWeb plan to launch their own satellite fleets in the coming years.

Astronomers are worried that the growing number of objects overhead could impact our view of the heavens. With 5,000 satellites already in orbit, flickering like fireflies in the night as they reflect sunlight, it’s not uncommon for astronomers’ images of planets, stars and galaxies to be photobombed by a satellite that wanders obliviously into the telescope’s view. This will happen with increasing frequency as more satellites are launched; they’ll soon outnumber stars visible to the naked eye.

Responding to astronomers’ concerns, Musk tweeted that Starlink will have “no material effect on discoveries in astronomy.” He added that the goal of bringing internet access to billions of economically disadvantaged people around the world is a greater good. 

Satellites are good for kids and astronomy

Indeed, despite the nuisance of occasional satellite streaks across astronomical images, astronomy stands to benefit from more people having access to the internet. Nearly half the world’s population still doesn’t, according to the United Nations’ International Telecommunication Union. A child growing up today in a developing country could be the next Einstein, inspired to become a scientist thanks to her exposure to mind-bending concepts like black holes or the many beautiful images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

As the late biologist Stephen Jay Gould lamented, countless undiscovered geniuses “have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.” 

But who owns the sky? And who gets to decide what is the greater good?


SpaceX satellites over Leiden, Netherlands, on May 24, 2019.
Marco Langbroek/AFP/Getty Images

Last year, a New Zealand-based company named Rocket Lab launched a glittering "disco ball" christened the Humanity Star. The satellite, not much bigger than the size of a prize-winning pumpkin at a county fair, was designed to appear like a bright, pulsing star in the night sky.

“The goal is make people look up and realize they are on a rock in a giant universe,” said Peter Beck, the company founder. The satellite reentered Earth’s atmosphere and burned up just two months after launch. 

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Not all space projects have such lofty aims, however. A few months ago, a Russian company named StartRocket announced plans to launch an armada of tiny, light-reflecting satellites known as cubesats to create giant billboards in space. And in 2008, planets orbiting a star named 47 Ursae Majoris were intentionally spammed with an advertisement for Doritos. 

Balance research, ads and opportunity in space

Advertising could even come to the moon someday. In 2009, a Utah company named the Moon Publicity patented a “shadow shaping technology” that will use robot vehicles to carve “small ridges in the lunar dust over large areas that capture shadows and shape them to form logos, domains names or memorials,” according to Universe Today. 

Rather than seeing the familiar face of the man in the moon, future earthlings might look up to see advertisements for Coca-Cola or the Nike swoosh.

In Fredric Brown’s short story "Pi in the Sky," written seven decades ago, astronomers are baffled when the stars suddenly begin to rearrange themselves in the heavens. Unbeknownst to them, a wealthy businessman has invented a device that manipulates Earth’s atmosphere to change the apparent positions of stars in the sky. As the world looks on, the stars gradually spell out an advertisement: “USE SNIVELY’S SOAP.” 

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As the growing number of orbiting satellites makes clear, humanity must collectively decide whether the sky belongs to a few wealthy individuals and companies to use as they wish, or whether it’s a resource to be protected and shared by everyone. Finding a balance between commercial interests, economic inequalities, scientific research and preservation of the night sky for future generations won’t be easy. But if we don’t, the future could turn out to be even stranger than fiction.


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