Living in London, it is hard to imagine a world without internet connection. Most of us groan at the rare sight of our mobile data switching from 4G to 3G, and we even have Wi-Fi at our tube stations. But in 2018, the Global System for Mobile Communications reported that 10% of the world’s population lived beyond the reach of a mobile network, and an additional 3% do not have access to adequate broadband speeds. That translates to around 1 billion people living without adequate internet coverage.
This is a problem in our increasingly online world, where more of us are working from home than ever and many children require internet access to complete their schoolwork. In 2017, the Imperial Business School published a study showing that a 10% increase in mobile broadband leads to an increase in GDP of 0.6-2.8%.
So a network of potentially 42,000 mini satellites providing high-speed internet to the entire planet sounds like a great idea, right? That is the end goal of Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink programme, which began in May 2019 with the launch of 60 small satellites from a single rocket. As of right now, there are almost 800 Starlink satellites orbiting the Earth.
There are several issues with this ambitious plan. For starters, the internet coverage will come at a cost to users. Depending on the cost, it is likely that this will limit the number of additional internet users that the programme can actually bring in, as areas without proper internet access are generally in less privileged communities.
On top of this, satellites do not last forever, and we are facing an increasing problem of “space junk” as more satellites become non-operational. Even if SpaceX’s satellites last for centuries, their “mega-constellation” will still be leaving future generations with an additional 42,000 pieces of space junk to deal with.
Many astronomers have also expressed great concern about the impact that the programme will have on astronomy research. At the moment, if you spend a few hours looking at the night sky, you will see several satellites moving amongst the many stars. But the stars we can see with the naked eye currently significantly outnumber satellites, and astronomers researching our universe can correct for the marks left by a satellite or two in their images and data.
Removing thousands of satellites from a set of data is less easy, and a lot more time consuming. You only have to look at images that have been interrupted by the Starlink satellites already orbiting to understand the potential disruption that tens of thousands of satellites could cause to research.
Radioastronomers have also voiced concerns about Starlink satellites. The Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international telescope project which will become the world’s largest radio observatory once complete, has highlighted the issue that these satellites will require the use of a wider range of frequencies. This will reduce the bandwidth available to radioastronomers studying the sky. The band that Starlink uses takes up frequencies of 10.7 to 12.7 gigahertz, within a range known as band 5b. This is one of the seven bands SKA’s satellite dishes aim to target. This is based on SKA analysis which calculated the impact of 6400 satellites, so it is likely that the planned 42,000 Starlink satellites could have an even worse impact.
And it is not just researchers who will be impacted. Those of us who do not have access to a telescope might soon be looking up at a sky dominated by satellites rather than stars. The reflection of sunlight from the satellites will increase light pollution and reduce the number of stars visible to the naked eye. The night sky, a near constant throughout human history, might never be the same again.