As It Happens

Government intervention needed to save endangered night sky, says scientist

As plans go ahead for mega-constellations of satellites over Earth, one researcher says one in every 15 points of light we see in the night sky could soon be a satellite.

Mega-constellations of satellites could look 'very disorienting,' says Samantha Lawler

Even several years ago, many satellites were visible in the night sky on any given night. This image is composed of 300 short 13-second exposures taken within 70 minutes from Waldenburg, Germany, on the night of the Perseids meteor shower on Aug. 12, 2018. Most of the dozen of lines are made by satellites reflecting the light from the sun below the horizon. (Eckhard Slawik)

Story Transcript

Samantha Lawler lives in the rural municipality of Edenwold, Sask. It's "a place that's so dark that I can walk out my back door and see the Milky Way," she said.

But that deep darkness won't last, as companies like SpaceX's Starlink and Amazon's Project Kuiper proceed with plans to launch tens of thousands of satellites into orbit, forming "mega-constellations" of satellites.

She knows exactly what that could look like, because she's been working on simulations of satellites in the night sky.

"Every night I can see probably a few satellites in a few-minute period. And I know that's going to increase a lot," Lawler, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Regina, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

Her model relies on the planned or actual orbits of 65,000 satellites from four major companies: Starlink, Project Kuiper, OneWeb and StarNet/GW. The majority of these satellites have not yet been launched, but there are already nearly 4,000 operational satellites in orbit, Lawler noted.

"According to our simulations, which take into account the brightness of satellites reflecting sunlight and the orbits that these companies want to use, I predict that there will be a couple of hundred satellites visible at any time during the summer in my night sky and within a couple hours of sunrise and sunset all year long," she said.

The companies filed plans with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and the International Telecommunications Union that detail the angles of the orbits and how many satellites would be on each orbit. As a result, Lawler and her colleagues are able to predict where the satellites will be in the sky as viewed from different locations on Earth at different times of year, and estimate how much light they'll reflect.

They relied on observations of existing Skylink satellites at the Plaskett Telescope in Victoria, B.C. to help calibrate their model.

Samantha Lawler says that people living close to 50 degrees north will be most affected by plans to launch tens of thousands of satellites into space in the next few years. (Campion College, University of Regina/Submitted by Samantha Lawler )

"We really wanted to make sure that our model is applicable to Canada. We want to know what's going to happen to our skies," she said.

According to her research, people living along 50 degrees of latitude north and south will be most affected by visible satellites and other night sky light pollution. The north latitude line runs across some Canadian cities including Vancouver, Winnipeg and Calgary.

If 65,000 satellites are launched into space and the industry isn't regulated, the could drown out the light from actual stars, of which we can usually only see a few thousand with the naked eye, she said.

"If you have a couple hundred satellites [visible] at all times, that means that one out of every 15 points in the sky will actually be moving. It'll be very disorienting," said Lawler. 

Making satellites fainter

So many moving visible satellites pose enormous challenges for research, to say nothing of the amount of pollution they'll cause, said Lawler.

Some of them "will completely die in orbit and then they'll just become space junk," while others will burn up in the upper atmosphere, she explained. She noted that they're mostly made of aluminum, and that we have no information on what such a large increase of burning aluminum will do the upper atmosphere.

WATCH | What a future with a sky full of satellite mega-constellations could look like

Lawler said that instead of launching their own satellites to support their respective internet services, companies should be forced to share infrastructure, whether by government action or other forms of regulation. Failing that, they could at least be forced to ensure their devices don't reflect so much light.

"There are fantastic engineers who work for all of these companies, but right now they have absolutely no incentive to make their satellites fainter, so they're not doing it," said Lawler. "Starlink, to their credit, has tried. They put a tiny bit of effort into making their satellites a little bit fainter, but they're still very much naked-eye visible."

Lawler says that governments must push forward legislation at a federal level, but she also notes that consumers do have some power.

"If you have another option for good internet, don't buy satellite internet. If ... satellite internet is the only the only option that you have, tell your company, tell your provider that you care about the night sky, that it's important to you that they put effort into engineering their satellites to be fainter," she said.

She also notes that putting pressure on local governments can be effective too.

"A lot of the lack of internet infrastructure in rural places is from many years of neglect by local governments, by provincial governments. If we pressure our governments into investing more in alternate forms of ... internet [access], then there wouldn't be so much demand for this."


Written by Andrea Bellemare. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. 

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this story stated Lawler lives in the village of Edenwold, Sask. In fact, she lives in the rural municipality of Edenwold.
    Dec 03, 2021 9:59 AM ET

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