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Planned launch of thousands of satellites could obliterate our view of night skies, says astronomy prof

Researcher at University of Regina says Starlink plans will have most impact at 50 degrees latitude

A 360-degree panorama of the night sky and prairie landscape from the Visitor Centre and farmyard at the Old Man on His Back Prairie & Heritage Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan.

A 360-degree panorama of the night sky and prairie landscape from the Visitor Centre and farmyard at the Old Man on His Back Prairie & Heritage Conservation Area in southwest Saskatchewan.

Photo: (Alan Dyer/NCC)

RCI

If the launch of thousands of artificial satellites goes ahead as planned, future generations may have to start singing 'Twinkle Twinkle Little StarLink,' a possibility that has one astronomy professor chilled. 

Humans have long turned to the night sky to see natural patterns, but the University of Regina's Sam Lawler fears the planned launch of satellites like SpaceX's StarLink will obliterate the view of the stars with their brightness. 

It's a fundamental change to the night sky that will be the biggest change that has ever happened in human history, she said.  

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX aerospace company has already launched close to 2,000 satellites, and plans to launch 42,000 satellites by mid-2027, with the goal of increasing access to broadband internet. 

That's nearly 10 times as many satellites than are currently in orbit, according to Lawler. Amazon is also making a push to build a rivalling satellite network. 

Lawler, along with two professors at the University of British Columbia and University of Toronto, has released a paper looking at the geometry and orbit of planned communication satellites. They've determined the proposed satellites will create the most light pollution at 50 degrees latitude, north and south. That will impact night sky viewers in Canadian cities from Vancouver to Regina to Winnipeg.

It will also have a devastating effect on astronomy research and stargazing worldwide, Lawler said.

There shouldn't have to be a choice between good internet and being able to see the night sky at night to see the stars, said Lawler.

She added that solar power networks and fibre optic expansions could be other options to improve connectivity.

Besides light pollution, the authors of the paper note that the launch of these satellites contributes to atmospheric pollution, both on launch and re-entry, and increase the risk of more satellite collisions in space.

Political solutions or legislation will come too slowly to create regulation on the number of satellites in space or their brightness, said Lawler. 

Starlink is launching 60 new satellites every couple of weeks. So this is happening right now, she said. 

It’s a nursery rhyme for the 21st century: twinkle, twinkle little StarLink. But the promise of this nursery rhyme has astronomy professor Sam Lawler chilled. We hear about the paper she’s just released about the impact of thousands of satellites on our night skies. 7:04

Instead, Lawler is putting her faith in consumers to exert pressure on satellite companies to change their design, or communicate with their government representatives to improve internet infrastructure in other ways. 

Her hope is that humans of the future can still look up and see the stars, a possibility that looks bleak in a satellite-dominated future in as few as five years.

So this is a possible future, and I really hope that I'm wrong, she said. I have never wanted to be wrong about a prediction before so far.

Janani Whitfield (new window) · CBC News with files from The Morning Edition

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