Could Elon Musk's Project Erase the Night Sky?

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The Milky Way is seen in the dark sky over Mitten Park in Dinosaur National Monument. (Photo: Dan Duriscoe/National Park Service)
"And the stars look very different today." ~ David Bowie

Someday, the world may owe a debt to a certain tech mogul with stars in his eyes.

Elon Musk has already taken us on quite a rocket ride — particularly with the spectacular strides his company, SpaceX, has made toward the dream of sending regular humans into space.

But what if, somewhere on that "Quest for a Fantastic Future" we lose sight of those stars?

An illustration depicting Elon Musk in a spacesuit.
Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has been throwing a lot of things into space lately. Star_Fish/

With Musk's latest sky-high ambition — an array of telecommunications satellites dubbed Starlink — that's a real possibility. While the idea behind sending 12,000 satellites into low orbit is laudable — Musk aims to bring high-speed internet to every nook and cranny of the planet — there are concerns that such a counterfeit constellation could blot out the real stars.

Musk has already sent a batch of 60 into orbit, piggybacking them on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in May. He plans to launch hundreds more in the coming months.

In October, SpaceX filed paperwork with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) for up to 30,000 additional satellites, according to SpaceNews. It doesn't mean the company will launch that many satellites — or even the 12,000 for which is has approval — but asking permission from the United Nations' body is the first step in the years-long process. And it's a telling step.

First impressions matter

At the time of the initial launch, Musk assured us they would be barely visible in the sky.

But as the rocket dragged those satellites skyward during launch, the glittering spectacle was anything but discrete.

Even without a telescope, the glitter train could be seen from across North America.

"At first I thought it was the trail from a jet, but it seemed too bright for that time of the night," Newfoundland resident John Peddle told CBC News. "I looked at it through the binoculars I had with me and saw it was actually dozens of lights. At first, I thought it was a meteor or [piece] of space junk burning up, but quickly noticed the lights were moving way too uniformly for it to be that."

And since then, with each twinkling satellite about the size of a mini-fridge, even sky gawkers have had little trouble spotting them.

"Imagine the outcry at similar desecration of a terrestrial environment," Robert Massey, deputy director of the Royal Astronomical Society, tweeted.

In May 2015, SpaceX conducted a successful first pad abort flight test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft.
In May 2015, conducted a successful first pad abort flight test of its Crew Dragon spacecraft. SpaceX

And then there's Ronald Drimmel from the Turin Astrophysical Observatory in Italy, who groused to Forbes, "Starlink, and other mega constellations, would ruin the sky for everyone on the planet."

So what should we expect when thousands more of these disco balls hit the heavenly dance floor by the mid-2020s? Well, for one thing, we'll be able to watch adorable kitten videos from the heart of the Tanzanian jungle. And for another, we'll no longer be able to harvest our hopes and dreams from a star-speckled sky.

"It's going to become increasingly likely that the satellites will pass through the field of view and essentially contaminate your view of the universe," Darren Baskill, an astronomer at the University of Sussex, told The Verge. "And it's going to be really difficult to remove that contamination away from our observations."

Tonto National Monument in Arizona has been designated as an International Dark Sky Park. (Photo: National Park Service)

With light pollution an increasing concern, it seems the stars themselves are being treated as a kind of endangered species. There are even Dark Sky Parks now, where artificial light sources are strictly limited. Think of them as wildlife refuges for increasingly scarce stars.

Not only that, but light pollution has proven to take a grim toll on actual animals. Birds are particularly vulnerable to getting their wires crossed by artificial lights. They use the stars for navigation, along with tweets (not those tweets) to coordinate mass migrations across huge distances.

But make no mistake. Musk's endeavors are no flight of fancy. Projects like SpaceX and Starlink hold real practical promise for us all — whether that's expanding connectivity here on Earth or expanding our habitable reach to Mars and beyond.

But what about that sky-spanning canvas upon which dreams have been painted since the beginning of recorded time? How many world-changing ideas were inspired by a starry night — and how many future Elon Musks might draw inspiration from it?

Because, just as progress shouldn't come at the cost of a scorched Earth, so too, should we be wary of scorching the sky — just to reach the stars.