Paul Andersen: Satellites drastically alter our common cosmos
Look up on a clear night and you might feel shock and awe at what you see. I did so one recent night when I stepped out to take in the air and appreciate the bright glimmer of Venus and the constellation Orion.
I noticed a satellite tracking northeast, so I watched as it came quickly overhead. Then I noticed a second satellite on exactly the same trajectory. Then a third, a fourth, a fifth. I counted a dozen in a string of satellites streaking overhead.
Those foreign objects circling the Earth were put into orbit by Elon Musk through his SpaceX enterprise, which has launched 60 small satellites into low Earth orbit. Musk also launched a Tesla electric car into orbit, complete with a dummy astronaut, just to show that it could be done.
The heavens are no longer the realm of the gods — unless Musk is now deified for his effrontery. The heavens are forever altered by a man-made, linear network of commercial satellites that will one day surveil upon and commercialize the entire globe.
Human history developed under the thrall of space into which man has gazed since before we could stand upright. Now our celestial gazes are captured by automated, programmed, data-streaming chunks of high-tech equipment. These man-made glimmers cause visual interference with the divine by crisscrossing the puzzle of the infinite void.
One ambition of technology seems to be the minimizing of nature and the maximizing of man. Cities blot out the night sky with ambient light for reasons of illuminated “security” from our age-old fear of the dark, while also blotting out the firmament.
The “Dark Sky Movement” was born a few decades ago in an effort to thwart the washing out of the natural night sky, which some value as a human birthright. “Doesn’t the present owe the future a chance to know the past?” asks conservationist and wilderness author Rod Nash.
Deprived of a natural night sky and of the awe, wonder and mystery that comes with it constitutes a huge change in human perception and perspective. Gazing starward has until now offered a pause to contemplate our mortality with a sense of cosmic humility.
SpaceX also creates interference for astronomers seeking out the dimmest lights in the outlying regions of space. Their telescopes must now compete with ambient light from the brightly shining satellites, of which more and more will be shot into space to circle the globe like a swarm of gnats.
A recent news item reported on astronomers surveying the Magellanic Clouds — two dim dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way galaxy — with telescopes at the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile.
“These galaxies are teaching scientists how stars form, and what happens when two galaxies pass near one another,” stated the report. “Watching them remotely, through a webcam at Fermilab outside of Chicago,” scientists began seeing “streaks come across the webcam view. The streaks weren’t from the heavens. They were from Earth.”
In about five minutes, a chain of 19 satellites interfered with the telescopes’ view, “scarring the observation with bright parallel marks, and degrading their scientific value.”
The report stated that soon, “Earth may be blanketed by tens of thousands of satellites, and they’ll greatly outnumber the approximately 9,000 stars that are visible to an unaided human eye. This is not some distant threat. It’s already happening.”
SpaceX has already put into orbit 240 small satellites in a growing system called Starlink. SpaceX has approval from the Federal Communications Commission to launch 12,000 satellites, and Musk is seeking approval to launch 30,000 more, smearing space with a man-made constellation that will purportedly provide universal internet access, for a price.
Earth is being infused with a man-made nervous system of satellites that mark a major intrusion into the greatest of all commons. This comes with a foreboding that satellites will allow the meddling of a new pantheon of highly suspect techno-gods.
I don’t recall anyone granting the FCC authority to approve the reconfiguration of the stellar beyond. There was no vote mandating private enterprise the unbridled liberty of altering the sacred human experience of the heavens.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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