Elon Musk’s revolutionary plan to provide internet in every corner of Earth is not free from controversy. The billionaire has been rigorously sending satellites into low orbit, creating an overhead network much closer to Earth than other constellations. Starlink uses Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites to deliver the highest internet speed at the lowest cost to as many people as possible. Initially, it just had a select number of customers. The company’s operations picked up pace after 2020 when the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorised SpaceX to send 12,000 orbital satellites along with an 885.5 million USD grant. The space giant has also requested to approve another 30,000 in hopes to have at least 42,000 SpaceX Starlink satellites in “Megaconstellation”. However, this plan has not gone well with the scientific community.
SpaceX Starlink Satellites Obstructing Astronomy
The scale of the project has raised concerns among scientists, astronauts, and many space researchers. They questioned how the bright satellites in low orbit could impact the visibility of the night sky. The community sounded the cosmic alarm when Musk deployed the first batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites in 2019, but FCC still granted permission and funds the following year. SpaceX has since deployed nearly 2,000 satellites, but some are prototype units that are not active parts of the constellation.
First, there was just social media chatter, but soon it became a formal call for regulations. France-based NGO International Astronomical Union (IAU) said Starlink’s proposed plan for an extensive satellite network could have “unforeseen consequences”. It warned that science had not yet fully understood the impact of thousands of bright satellites scattered across the night sky. Shortly after Starlink launched its LEO satellites, IAU also shared an image taken from an observatory, showing a view of a distant galaxy group NGC 5353/4 blocked by diagonal lines from the Starlink satellite trails.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) also submitted its concerns to FCC about Starlink’s possible impact on human spaceflight missions. The agency noted that around 25,000 objects were already in orbit, and more than 6,000 of them were below 600km. SpaceX’s expansion plan would double the total number and increase the lower objects by 5 times. LEO satellites for broadband communication are usually deployed between 400 and 2000km above the Earth. SpaceX Starlink satellites are installed at 550km above Earth. The major disadvantage of LEO satellites is the atmospheric drag which further brings objects closer to Earth, leading to orbital decay. A study in 2021 by Aaron Boley warned that alumina from satellites could cause ozone depletion and could change the atmosphere’s ability to reflect heat.
Impact on Nocturnality
Scientists are also worried about the increasing number of LEO satellites posing a threat to nocturnal animals. These creatures use celestial signals to move around, and studies have revealed that these signals are getting weaker. Nocturnal wildlife includes owls, bats, badgers, foxes, hedgehogs, galagos, tarsiers, moths, and some birds. However, many other creatures that can stay active at night, like cats, ferrets, lions, and rabbits, also use stars, sun, and moon for navigation. Theoretically, having many satellites in low orbit will reflect sunlight to Earth, confusing these animals.
More SpaceX Starlink satellites could intensify this disorientation, and as a result, creatures can migrate in the wrong direction. Scientists have observed this phenomenon in sea turtle hatchlings, which use reflective moonlight from waves to navigate the waters. The bright night sky has disorientated their vision, causing them to wander off onto the streets. One study found that a migratory bird, indigo bunting, also experienced disoriented navigation due to a blocked view of stars within 35 degrees.
Elon Musk stated that SpaceX has been working closely with astronomers to reduce the potential impact of LEO satellites. However, the full implications of this ambitious project on animals relying on celestial cues are still unknown.
The Cost of Satellite Internet
According to advertisements, LEO broadband services are supposed to provide significantly higher download/upload speeds than wire and fibre. SpaceX claimed it could offer up to 300 Mbps download speed at the end of 2021. However, in 2022 the rate is still reportedly around 78Mbps served to about 10,000 customers, including rural areas. According to reports, the service charges are 99 USD, including taxes and an upfront installation cost of 499 USD, including a mountable dish and a router at home. The company hopes to bring the prices down after lowering its production costs.
After growing debate about night sky visibility and astronomy observations, SpaceX redesigned its satellites with sport visors. The company said that these visors could reduce the satellites’ brightness so space watchers would be able to see the stars. There are also concerns about the plenty of space junk in Earth’s low orbit causing potential collisions and interfering with science activities in space. Musk ensured that SpaceX Starlink satellites could avoid collisions autonomously, and 95% of their components would instantly disintegrate at the end of their life. However, space researchers have doubted that it decreased any threats to the orbit.
In a geomagnetic storm on 10th February 2022, the sun destroyed more than 40 SpaceX Starlink satellites, raising more concerns about space debris reaching Earth. But the company said that SpaceX posed no risk to Earth or other satellites. According to the reports, the cost of the destroyed satellites was around 20 million USD, and the entire project of 42,000 satellites could take up to 10 billion USD, as per Musk. However, the cost can increase due to similar events like the recent geomagnetic storm. The tremendous technology provides connectivity to areas with no internet, but it is also prone to a colossal fallback. Natural disasters and hurricanes can easily disrupt communication due to satellites close to Earth. So, wasting so much money on a risky project bothers many professionals.
This is not the only controversy surrounding Elon Musk and his ventures. Most of his projects serve the elite rather than the needy which was why he was a bad choice for Times Person of the Year.