Column Industrial revolutions bring three things – social upheaval, economic explosions and massive pollution. We haven't sorted that out since the first one and we're already well into our information-based second. Now we're promised a third as space technology moves from cottage industry into mass production.
It's not going to be The Expanse: neither you nor your children are going to be mining asteroids or hanging about in space colonies. The first commercial use of space – communications – is going to drive the next wave. And it might not be pretty: the pollution this time round is going to be rather obvious.
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You'll know that Elon Musk's SpaceX has started lobbing Starlink internet-access satellites, 60 at a time, on his own rockets. He has permission for 12,000, and is talking about a further 30,000. OneWeb, a UK-based company, wants to loft a mere 650 satellites. Amazon wants in on the up too, planning a 3,200 satellite constellation called Kuiper. If everything comes to pass – and grandiose space networks have a poor track record of that – there'll be 50,000 new satellites in orbit.
This is annoying astronomers, who have already found Musk leaving his mark on their pictures. They predict twinkly, sparkly doom with mankind denied the joys of a pristine night sky, amateur astronomers put off by having their observations ruined, and important science badly curtailed. These aren't cosmic sour grapes – satellites have been throwing the wrong sort of photons at stargazers for decades, and the prospect of wholesale deliveries of much more of the same is understandably unwelcome. They know this enemy.
So sympathies – but they're wrong. There are around 4,000 satellites in orbit already, of which around a third are active. Take a look at the night sky – if you're outside a city and if the night is clear – and see how many satellites you can count. If you manage one every thirty minutes, you'll be doing well. Ten times that many isn't going to ruin anything, and if you're anywhere near an airport or flight path you won't be seeing anything new. Astronomers are good at coping with satellites – as they are with all manner of things. It's a noisy cosmos and we're a noisy planet. It'll be more work, but it won't break science.
The upsides are impressive. Astronomy is in a golden age; we've got spacecraft in every corner of the Solar System and a couple outside, robots roaming Mars, and space observatories creating billion-star catalogues. We're snooping in every corner of the electromagnetic spectrum plus cosmic rays, neutrinos and gravitational waves. None of this is remotely threatened by fleets of sats – quite the opposite. What all the new astronomy has in common is the creation of enormous data sets, which are devoured not just by career stargazers but by an army of citizen scientists. Better access to the data, especially in parts of the world where the internet has yet to mature, will mean more discoveries by more people. And more enthusiasm – the one truly indispensable driver for space science.
There are other benefits. Space is accessible to enthusiasts as never before. Amateur radio satellites swarm the skies, offering access to anyone who can pass a simple exam and stump up 30 quid for a cheap Chinese walkie-talkie. If you push the boat out and get a dongle or two, you can send HD TV via a geostationary satellite to half the world at once. And Amazon is doing for space communication what it's done for cloud computing: its AWS Ground Station network of dishes can be hired by the minute online by anyone. All this great technology is either dependent on or greatly enhanced by internet access.
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It's really not going to be that bad. The new satellites are in low-Earth orbit, which means they spend most of their time either in full daylight or full night; it's only at twilight they'll catch the Sun in an otherwise dark sky. Radio astronomers have bigger worries because these things are going to be squawking away non-stop and even when they're in top-notch condition some of that energy is going to leak into observations. If the designers of the spacecraft radio systems aren't talking to the dish jockeys, there's scope for real damage – yet good engineering and good planning can minimise this.
For every streak of light that messes up a picture of a Magellanic Cloud, there'll be a young kid in a field at dusk looking up at a satellite going past and getting their cosmic freak on. For every annoying blip on the radio spectrum of a pulsar, a housewife will be looking at the output of an active galactic nucleus on her laptop, thinking, "what if…"
We are sharing in one of the greatest revolutions in scientific knowledge in history. Skies alive with satellite networking may not be to the astronomers' taste, but it will be to their benefit. ®