August 28, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Will Clear Starry Nights Be Lost Forever?

A classic showdown has already started between technological convenience and natural revelation.

There aren’t many things on Earth to compete with the glory of a clear night sky. Astronomy, the queen of the sciences, is God’s gift to mankind. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” King David said in Psalm 19. His experience as a young shepherd gazing up at night must have inspired the well-known lines in Psalm 8,

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

Orion (DFC)

The heavens can inspire; they can humble; they can put our lives in perspective. Civilizations from the earliest Babylonians and Egyptians and before have studied the stars. Building on millennia of observations, and four centuries since the invention of the telescope, we know more than ever before about stars, planets, galaxies, and exotic phenomena like black holes and fast radio bursts.

And yet this gift to mankind, a benefit of living on a privileged planet around an ideal star in a perfect platform within the Milky Way for scientific observation, is now being threatened – by the quest for convenience, in the form of high-speed internet.

In Nature this week, Alexandra Witze writes about “How satellite ‘megaconstellations’ will photobomb astronomy images.” Three companies are planning to launch tens of thousands of small satellites in hopes of providing global high-speed internet. Other countries are making additional plans. It’s already begun, and it’s picking up steam. What will the night sky look like in a few years?

Kitt Peak Observatory (DFC)

‘Megaconstellations’ of satellites increasingly launching into orbit around Earth will contaminate the data astronomers collect — and profoundly shift humanity’s view of the night skies. That’s the conclusion of the most detailed assessment yet of how these satellite networks, launched by companies including Amazon and SpaceX, might affect astronomical observations from Earth….

“There’s no place to hide in the middle of the night from such a satellite constellation,” says Tony Tyson, a physicist at the University of California, Davis.

Already, SpaceX has launched 650 of its Starlink satellites—some of which can be seen as bright flashes in the night sky—but that’s only the beginning of a coming swarm.

  • SpaceX is planning 12,000 Starlink satellites.
  • London-based OneWeb “has launched 74 of what it hopes will be a gigantic fleet of 48,000 satellites.”
  • “Amazon, which last month received US government approval to launch 3,236 satellites for its planned Kuiper service.”

Kitt Peak Mayall Telescope dome (DFC)

Ramifications

Astronomers are worried. The light reflected off these satellites leaves streaks on astronomical images, which interfere with observations of faint objects. There’s not much they can do about it, and the satellite companies have not succeeded trying out mitigation efforts. Painting them dark, for instance, causes other problems, like excess heat for the electronics.

There are many photographers who specialize in astrophotography. Modern digital cameras make it easier than ever to capture the Milky Way and a starry sky in night images, which can be incredibly stunning to admire. Extraneous streaks from airplanes and satellites can be removed in post-processing, but it’s a tedious job, and never quite as good as an uncluttered image. What happens when there are hundreds of streaks to remove?

Get Real

Orbiting craft have cluttered the night sky since 1957, when the launch of Sputnik set off the space race. There are already many hundreds of satellites in orbit, and space junk has long been a serious problem that space agencies must take into account. Many night-sky observers enjoy catching glimpses of some satellites. They appear usually after sunset and before sunrise, when direct sunlight reflects down to the Earth. Timing the appearance of the International Space Station makes an entertaining hobby for some observers.

But to most, those are distractions from the natural, pure, awe-inspiring legacy of an uncluttered starry sky, illuminated only with God’s creations: the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, and a few interlopers like meteors and comets. Ever since the fourth day of creation, that has been mankind’s universal experience, causing one to stop, look, and think. Will it ever be the same when thousands of moving lights distract the attention of the observer?

Star Party on a mountaintop (DFC)

I’m drawing attention to this problem at the leading edge of what might become a stargazer’s nightmare. Having led star parties for 36 years, I am worried by Witze’s report, even though it’s probably too late to do anything about it. I know from experience how people react to unnatural celestial objects. I’ll be pointing out the wonder of the globular cluster in Hercules, or the Summer Triangle, or the Trifid Nebula, and someone will blurt out, “Look! A satellite!” Immediately everyone’s head turns to look at some man-made object moving slowly across the sky, when the point of the event was to learn about the handiwork of God. I dread having dozens of flickering lights visible when stargazing alone or with a group. I fear the loss to astronomers who will lose clear views of faint objects. Once it’s done, how could it ever be undone? Will clear-sky astronomy only be possible from orbit, or from the moon? How great is that kind of loss?

I’d like to know your opinion about this threat from new technology. Gaining high speed internet from anywhere on Earth will be a big convenience, but mankind has survived since the beginning without that. Are megaconstellations like Starlink the only way to get it? Is it worth it to lose the night sky? Is it worth it to interfere with serious astronomy? Is it worth it to clutter God’s message of His glory to people? What do you think?

 

 

 

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