For obvious reasons, nobody “owns” space. And for the relatively few decades in which humanity has been able to reach beyond the atmosphere, there hasn’t been too serious of a problem allocating room for 5,000 or so satellites currently orbiting the earth.
But now SpaceX is proposing launching more than twice that many satellites — as many as 12,000 in total — in an effort called Starlink that would form a coordinated network to beam internet access to remote parts of the world that don’t have it.
Other companies have similar plans. There are several potential problems.
Astronomers are concerned that Starlink satellites would be so widespread that it would make observation of far-off objects nearly impossible.
So far, SpaceX has launched about 60 satellites as part of the project, and some astronomers were surprised when the reflective metal boxes photobombed their images of distant galaxies.
Since so much of what we learn about space involves using ground-based telescopes to peer into the cosmos, a tangle of shiny objects whirring around the planet and cluttering telescope data poses a significant threat to important science and research efforts.
It would be even worse if something were to happen to one of those 12,000 satellites that sent it crashing into anything else in space. Debris traveling much faster than a bullet could cause a catastrophic chain reaction that would cause chaos for global communications and possibly make manned space travel too risky for decades.
This is already a concern as countries increasingly eye space as a war-fighting realm. Anti-satellite missile tests, for example, are inevitable and awful by-products of that cosmic concern. But adding lots of new objects to near-earth orbit would increase the risk of a disaster.
It’s also not entirely certain that bringing internet access to the entire planet is always such a gift to the people who supposedly stand to benefit, at least given the current “wild west” nature of the online world.
At the very least it’s dubious to suggest that the benefits outweigh the inherent risks of a massive satellite network like the one SpaceX has proposed rather than a less fraught way to expand internet access.
Last week, researchers pointed to WhatsApp rumors having possibly led to recent killings of Ebola aid workers in Congo, for instance. That messaging app has also been linked to lynchings in India and South America.
Facebook has been used to sabotage democratic processes. Twitter can be a platform for harassment and hatred. Google has been accused of playing fast and loose with its vast stores of user data.
All of these tech tools can be and have been used for profound good, of course. And access to the internet will undoubtedly remain essential to participation in modern society and economies from the local to the international level.
But in our rush to integrate the internet into so many aspects of our lives, we haven’t always sufficiently considered and prepared for the consequences, which have sometimes turned out to be truly alarming.
SpaceX is attempting something not so dissimilar with its Starlink project.
A single company should not be allowed to unilaterally alter the power dynamics of space for the entire global population without broad oversight and proof of safety. We need smarter ground rules for what happens far above Earth’s surface.