The growing number of Earth-orbiting satellites has raised a scientific and cultural conundrum: should we care more about looking at the night sky?…
Or look down at our phones?
That question is at the center of intense debate as private companies fill the sky with tens of thousands of new satellites, resulting in “mega-constellations.” The prime example is SpaceX’s Starlink, which is expected to provide global internet access by 2024. Many other companies have their own plans for these huge clusters of satellites.
This movement to surround the earth with brightly lit machines is all about connection, bringing 5G cellular service to every corner of the world. Still, many scientists and astronomers have begun to voice their opposition to telecommunications networks blocking our view of the ultimate frontier.
If this capitalist attitude becomes dominant both in space and on Earth, the effects will be as diverse as they are catastrophic, scientists say. Light from satellites has started interfering with the Hubble telescope, prompting astronomers to take it farther into space and away from visual noise.
Nature lovers want to maintain a natural view of the sky – undisturbed by the streaks of satellites, which are now more common than shooting stars.
And in a moving polemic published this month in Ecological Citizen, scientist Kate McFarland made an environmental argument by positing that increased brightness at night could threaten delicate ecosystems across the planet.
“Most insidious of all, human tolerance for this novel threat to the night sky seems to betray a worrying lack of reverence and respect for the more than human universe,” wrote McFarland, associate director of the Rewilding Institute and center associate at the Center for Ethics and Humanity Values from Ohio State University.
Rising concerns about light pollution
In 1994, an earthquake in Los Angeles caused a massive power outage, revealing seldom-seen night skies to millions of residents. Many of them panicked as they looked up to see a huge cloud of silver hovering overhead. Some called 911 and the nearby Griffith Observatory.
They looked at the Milky Way, which they obviously had never seen before.
“Because so many of us never see an unlight-polluted night sky from one year to the next, a mythology has arisen about how people think a real starry sky looks like,” Ed Krupp, director of the Griffith Observatory, wrote of the event.
But unlike the light pollution of a metropolis like LA, the brightness produced by satellites cannot be avoided by driving into the Nevada desert. In 2019, when SpaceX launched its Starlink initiative, the launch of 60 satellites “bombed” the Alpha Monocerotids, a rare meteor shower captured from the “dark sky” island of La Palma.
In an ironic twist, this island served as the birthplace of the Declaration in Defense of the Night Sky and the Right to Starlight. Written in 2007, it states that “an unpolluted night sky…is the inalienable right of mankind.”
Satellite megaconstellations like Starlink threaten to deprive all earthlings of this right. And while these events show 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 are more vulnerable to human threats. Artificial light sources can also create confusion and misdirection for species that rely on the moon for their migration (like the heartbreaking deaths of sea turtle hatchlings recorded in Planet Earth II).
In addition, humans are far from the first or only animals to use celestial bodies for orientation. Species ranging from harbor seals to the large yellow underwing moth to the African dung beetle use stars and the Milky Way for nocturnal travel guidance. Much like the tragic fate of these sea turtles, they are often distracted by artificial lights, leading them into danger and conflict.
But perhaps the most intriguing example cited in McFarland’s article is that of Cornell scientist Stephen Emlen. In the 1960s, Emlen placed indigo flags in a planetarium with a misrepresentation of the night sky, including missing constellations and a misaligned Polaris, or North Star. The birds could not orient themselves properly under these conditions. When the time came for their autumn migration, they went in the wrong direction.
“There is little reason for an ecocentrist to call for 5G connectivity anywhere on earth,” McFarland wrote. “Is this really necessary for the 71% of the earth’s surface that is water? Or in the half of the earth’s surface that many of us want to protect for the wild nature? Certainly not. Instead, we must focus on shrinking our societies – and with them our internet and mobile data infrastructure – before we colonize all of heaven and earth.”