Are you guys all caught up on The Good Place? If not, why not, and if so, good, let’s proceed. I will say this delicately to avoid spoiling anything for those who aren’t caught up but the basic narrative of the last season was “Shit’s complicated.” It’s not easy to do good in this day and age, because of all the unintended side effects of our actions. You can’t even ethically buy a tomato without thinking about the pesticides used, the farm employees’ salary and immigration status, and the fossil fuels spent to get it from the farm to your table.
We see some of the same issues happening in science and technology, and one person who pushes those issues to the forefront possibly more than any other is Elon Musk. Musk forces us (or me at least) to consider the problems we face when we give someone who ostensibly loves science an unlimited budget and zero oversight. In a dream world, this is the best possible thing to happen because a person like that can accomplish so much, without worrying about red tape or budget cuts. But then we have to accept we’re at their mercy, because that person isn’t worrying about careful oversight or what cause that money could better go to.
Elon Musk is the worst in many ways, and his fanboys are completely, embarrassingly idiotic, like Joe Rogan fans who somehow think they’re even smarter. But at the same time I DO love the idea of firing a shiny red car into space. I DO love the idea of being bored so you make and sell a flame thrower. I love the ridiculousness of it all. Yes, that money could be better spent on helping feed the poor, for instance, but so could the $40 I spent on a real-life pokeball. It’s okay to do dumb stuff sometimes because life is short and pointless.
So when Elon Musk decided he was going to make fast internet available for cheap around the world using a network of 12,000 low-earth orbit satellites, I gotta say I liked the idea. The internet has become a basic human right, and getting it to the furthest corners of the earth, to people whose lives would be improved drastically by access to free resources like wikipedia, to people whose internet is currently blocked due to government censorship, well that’s just a really, really good idea. It’s the ethical thing to do, right?
Sort of! Remember, it’s 2019 now and you can’t easily make an ethical decision. Because launching 12,000 new satellites into low-earth orbit is going to have unintended consequences, and it’s mostly about astronomers and how we see our night sky.
Many, many night sky observers are extremely concerned about these satellites. Preliminary video of them makes it clear that they will be visible, just like other satellites in that orbit are — even in areas with very bad light pollution. It’s hard to say how 12,000 will look once they’re in place, as they will move higher than this (making them brighter as they’re more likely to reflect the sun) and moving further apart from one another (making them dimmer as several satellites won’t glob together to the unaided eye).
The biggest problem is that Elon Musk and his fanboys are quick to act as though all these astronomers shouldn’t be worried, telling them the satellites won’t be visible when the stars are out, which astronomers point out is just a blatant lie. Say they won’t overwhelm the sky, if you want, but don’t claim that they’re just going to disappear. They won’t. It’s disturbing that Musk doesn’t even know why the ISS is visible — he Tweeted that the reason is because it “has lights,” but the artificial lights on the ISS aren’t why we see it from Earth. It’s purely because of the sunlight it reflects. How can someone that ignorant be allowed to launch 12,000 satellites, literally sextupling the number of functional objects we have in orbit, with no oversight?
The Starlink absolutely will get in the way of observations that come from the Earth, and radio astronomers point out that even if they’re invisible to the naked eye, the satellites will be broadcasting on frequencies too close to what they use to observe the universe, including looking at the afterglow of the Big Bang. Astronomer and lead scientist of the Royal Institution of Australia Alan Duffy told Science Alert, “A full constellation of Starlink satellites will likely mean the end of Earth-based microwave-radio telescopes able to scan the heavens for faint radio objects.” That’s a tremendous loss that can only be recovered by building a radio telescope outside the net of satellites — in other words, on the moon. Who knows how long it will take us to get to that point?
Cheap and easily accessible internet will be an absolute boon to humanity, and honestly I suspect it might actually be worth it, even at the cost of some astronomical observations. But we really need the people who are making that decision to truly understand those costs, and not just pretend we’re getting it for free.