Starlink Satellite Internet – How much will Starlink Internet cost?
Large satellite constellations in low-Earth orbit aim to serve as the backbone for global broadband Internet and other telecommunications. We study the effects of satellite constellations on astronomy briefly, demonstrating that the Internet service provided by these satellites would mainly target populations where it is either unaffordable, unnecessary, or both. The damage caused by tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of low-Earth-orbit satellites to astronomy, stargazers around the world, and the atmosphere is inexcusable.
Since May 2019, SpaceX’s Starlink has deployed over 700 low-Earth-orbit satellites. With a final “constellation” of 42,000 satellites, they aim to provide global broadband Internet. Other operators have proposed similar plans, ushering in a new age of tens of thousands of commercial satellites in low-Earth orbit.
Recent research (McDowell 2020; Hainaut & Williams 2020; Tregloan-Reed et al. 2020) has raised questions about the visibility of these constellations as well as the effect of large numbers of satellites on optical astronomy. This is because satellites reflect sunlight even after sunset, resulting in bright streaks in astronomical images.
Because of its wide field of view and vast light collecting area, the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and its Legacy Survey of Space and Time (LSST, Ivezic et al. 2019) will be the optical astronomy facility most seriously impacted by satellite constellations. According to Tyson et al. (2020), a 48,000 satellite constellation would result in a satellite trail in at least 30% of LSST images. Other optical and near-IR observatories will be affected as well. Outside of optical wavelengths, there are also questions (e.g., Gallozzi et al. 2020; Massey 2020). Satellites, for example, transmit directly in the 10–30 GHz1 bands used for astronomical observations. Frequencies beyond the nominal transmission bands can be affected depending on satellite transmitter quality.
Unfortunately, moving telescopes into space is not a viable option. This is impossible due to prohibitive costs, the inability to sustain instruments in orbit, launch vehicle size limitations, the limited life expectancy due to harsh environments, and the need to plan and finance massive missions over decades. The recently released Satellite Constellations 1 Workshop Report (Walker et al. 2020) contains guidelines for reducing the effects of satellite trails in optical and near-IR images. The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will soon receive the final reports from the Conference on Dark and Quiet Skies for Science and Society2.
Rubin Observatory is partnering with SpaceX, and other satellite operators such as Amazon Kuiper and OneWeb have started discussions with astronomers as well. Though early Starlink mitigations seem promising, relying on satellite operators’ goodwill as a mitigation strategy is impractical. Mitigations in hardware and software can help to mitigate certain scientific effects, but they require a substantial amount of work that has not been prepared or budgeted for. They still ignore the broader environmental and cultural consequences of a dramatically altered night sky.
Although wide low-Earth orbit satellite constellations will harm astronomy and can make those orbits dangerous (Kessler et al. 2010; Hongqiang & Zhanyue 2020), these drawbacks can be appropriate if constellations provide significant benefits. The most common justification is that there is a critical need for reliable Internet connectivity around the world. This is a real need, and SpaceX is now providing free beta Starlink Internet to communities in need, such as first responders and the Hoh Tribe in Washington. Free Internet access for underserved populations is not, however, Starlink’s primary target, nor is it a viable business model.
The option between Internet access and astronomy isn’t black-and-white, but we’re fast approaching a point of no return, with tens to hundreds of thousands of satellites in the sky. Although there is an undeniable need for high-speed, open, and affordable Internet access, corporate satellite constellations are not humanitarian initiatives that offer access to the public for free. infrastructure to support SDG 9 Figure 1 shows that satellite constellations will not be able to provide Internet to all. Those who need it the most. The haste in which tens of thousands of satellites are launched should be seriously reconsidered.
We understand that many people regard satellite constellations as the new normal, and that actually not launching them may be seen as impractical. We want to be clear that we are not calling for a world without satellites, and we welcome the opportunity to continue working with satellite operators on a number of technological mitigations. The night sky, on the other hand, is a priceless resource that must not be exploited for profit. It must be preserved for future generations, not just for the sake of scientific research and cultural heritage.