Who Owns the Night Sky?

Silhouette of a person sitting on the ground looking up at star filled sky
Every Earthling has a claim to a star-filled sky. I MAKE PHOTO 17/Shutterstock

The last thing you probably think about when gazing up at a starry sky is who owns it. After all, it's you and me, right? Let's get on with wishing and dreaming and being inspired to do impossible things.

But as much as we hate to interrupt those starstruck reveries, the question does weigh a little heavier these days as we fling more things up into the heavens.

It's getting crowded up there. And long gone are the days when all that twinkles is a star.

In fact, you could easily throw away perfectly good wishes on Elon Musk's counterfeit constellation — a 12,000 satellite-strong communications system that's set to twinkle in Earth's orbit by the mid-2020s. And how many wishes have been wasted on the International Space Station by sky-gawkers mistaking it for a streaking star?

That's to say nothing of the tens of thousands of satellites already in our orbit.

Humanity Star

And then there's that "giant pointless disco ball" in the sky known as the Humanity Star, which didn't even pretend to be a scientific endeavor. It just wanted to get our attention.

"Humanity is finite, and we won't be here forever," said Peter Beck, the American CEO of Rocket Lab. "Yet in the face of this almost inconceivable insignificance, humanity is capable of great and kind things when we recognize we are one species, responsible for the care of each other, and our planet, together."

Did we really need someone to hang a disco ball in the middle of our star-speckled sky to be reminded of that?

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck and his 'Humanity Star.'
Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck and his 'Humanity Star.'. (Photo: Rocket Lab)

Mercifully, the Humanity Star lasted just two months before it burned out. But how long will it be before more objects fill the night sky, clambering for our attention? Maybe Pepsi might be able to get its trademark swirl up there. Will the Nike swoosh become a constellation of tiny flickering satellites? Please. Just don't do it.

But who says they can't?

Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space

The United Nations took a stab at it back in 1959, when it established the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). The idea was to get every nation to sign on to treaties governing how space was explored for the benefit of all.

But what about companies and individuals with the means to rattle the stars independently of nations? Consider this recent statement from SpaceX chief financial officer Bret Johnson:

"Since 2002, we have been at the forefront of revolutionizing space technology, with a solid track record of success, strong customer relationships and more than 70 future launches on our manifest, representing over $10 billion in contracts. Furthermore, with over $1 billion in cash reserves and no debt, the company is in a financially strong position and is well positioned for future growth."

The "benefit of all"? Or like a company looking to make one giant leap for shareholder-kind?


And while those SpaceX launches will surely spell more debris in the sky above us, Musk's other project, Starlink, promises to take a more direct approach to befouling our starry sky. Only a few of its telecommunications satellites are in orbit and they're already visible to the naked eye.

As part of the project, 1,600 satellites will join them in beaming internet service back to Earth. And those twinkling artificial stars could bring home a handsome profit for Musk's company. In fact, the Wall Street Journal estimates Starlink will generate more than $15 billion in profit by 2025.

Yet Musk won't be paying a dime in rent for his storefront in the sky.

Where Does 'Space' Begin?

Factory smoke emissions billow out from behind a lake and forest
Letting anyone do whatever they want with our shared atmosphere hasn't worked out so well. De Visu/Shutterstock

Part of the problem, of course, is that space isn't as easy to regulate as a forest or field here on Earth. It's hard enough to simply distinguish it from the atmosphere above our heads. We've already thoroughly messed up the latter by letting just about anyone dump anything into our shared atmosphere for too long. Indeed, it's proving a lot harder to rein in industrial emissions than it likely would have been if we had just laid some groundwork for it in the first place.

The Kármán Line

Space, on the other hand, is still reasonably chaste — give or take nearly 5,000 satellites and countless tons of mechanical debris. The area beyond Earth's atmosphere has come to be defined by the Kármán line, which runs about 62 miles above Earth's mean sea level and is named after Hungarian physicist Theodore von Kármán.

Anything beyond that line would fall under several of the international treaties and principles brokered by COPUOS.

Except not everyone subscribes to the idea that space is humanity's commons — an international park above our heads that should be preserved and, at the very least, developed with input from all of its shareholders — like, you know, us.

Space Boundaries

The U.S. is among a handful of countries that doesn't see space boundaries as something that needs to be negotiated with others.

What's more, even the Kármán line isn't exactly etched in stone. The very nature of space makes boundaries fluid and difficult to define. Many satellites routinely bob in and out of Karman's arbitrary border.

The Starry Sky is a New Frontier

It all seems to point to the starry sky as a new and wild frontier where those who have the ability to stake a claim to it simply do so.

Like Elon Musk and SpaceX. Or disco-ball-slinging Peter Beck. It's safe to say that neither of these visionaries filed for a permit from the Department of Starry Sky Management (which sadly does not exist) before reaching for the 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/Shutterstock.com

But should you be able to claim something simply because you have the technical ability to do so? Ask colonized peoples throughout history what they thought of that idea.

And make no mistake. Space — especially the part of it that we see when we simply look up at night — is an infinitely powerful resource. Up until recently, it has only fueled human imagination, inspiring artists and thinkers and the child in all of us.

We can thank the same starry sky that hangs over us all for the nightly reminder that there's no limit to what we can do.

But, let's face it, there really should be a limit on how many things we cram into that sky — and who gets to do it.

Why Space Matters to Treehugger

Space is our planet’s home and its wonders help us get outside and foster an appreciation of nature. Exploring space and the cosmos can also help us learn about what’s happening on Earth. Space-based technologies have helped us better understand climate change, water cycles, and even air quality.