Megaconstellations: ‘Stars’ You Don’t Want to See in the Sky

This essay, by Katherine Shaoage 16, from Mercer Island High School in Mercer Island, Wash., is one of the Top 11 winners of The Learning Network’s Ninth Annual Student Editorial Contestfor which we received 16,664 entries.

We are publishing the work of all the winners and runners-up over the next week, and you can find them here as they post.

Megaconstellations: ‘Stars’ You Don’t Want to See in the Sky

During hot summer nights, my neighbors and I would peer eagerly through our telescope, eyepieces whizzing from blurry stars to the luminescent moon. Like generations before me, I dreamed of galactic battles, Martian populations and meeting Hans Solo. For thousands of years, the seemingly untouchable space has captivated the collective human imagination.

Now, vast networks of satellites that form “megaconstellations” are changing the game. Space has become the lucrative new frontier for the corporate world, with operations like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper taking center stage in an effort to provide a global broadband internet service.

The Union of Concerned Scientists reports there are currently over 4,000 satellites in lower Earth orbit, with over tens of thousands to come. Scientists are becoming concerned with the problem of satellites “photobombing” astronomical observations. As the satellites orbit around Earth’s view, vast captures of distant stars are marred by bright streaks. Polluted images must be thrown out, potentially costing millions of dollars and devastating astronomical observations.

But the problems don’t end there. Miscalculations and the harsh space environment make the satellites especially prone to collisions and degradation, breaking into debris and “space junk.” Thousands of pieces of debris float around the atmosphere, triggering the Kessler Syndrome, where debris causes collisions, causing more debris, and exponentially. As Professors Aaron Boley and Michael Byers of the University of British Columbia report, a “single major fragmentation event from one satellite could affect all operations” in lower Earth orbit. Like a catastrophic domino chain, megaconstellations may eventually render space inaccessible.

While faster internet is undoubtedly a convenience, it shouldn’t come at the cost of keeping our celestial space pristine. Ironically, the current hustle to monetize space closely resembles our own planet’s environmental predicament. When faced with new frontiers, our society tends to adopt an attitude of over-accumulation, especially in competitive markets. This spatial fix ultimately hinders our ability to benefit from these precious environments, as we focus too much on extraction, too little on preservation.

Our collective inheritance of space also means we must act as responsible stewards. Instead of scrambling to fix an irreparably damaged environment, it’s critical to take action now. One proposed buffer explained by The New York Times is a robust international regulatory regime to guide and manage the appropriation of outer space. While it’s unrealistic and ultimately stifling to halt innovation in space, modeling a convention similar to the Air Convention would enable us to harness benefits while ensuring sustainable use.

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