A Starlink satellite prepares for deployment from the second stage of a Falcon 9 rocket launched on November 11. Credit: SpaceX

Playing the devil’s advocate on Starlink

After SpaceX began to launch its Starlink satellite constellation to facilitate global internet coverage, astronomers began complaining that the satellites are likely to interfere with stargazing schemes, especially those of large, sensitive telescopes. Spaceflight stakeholders also began to worry, especially after SpaceX’s announcement that the Starlink constellation is in fact the precursor to a mega-constellation of at least 12,000 satellites, that it could substantially increase space traffic and complicate satellite navigation.

Neither of these concerns is unfounded, primarily because neither SpaceX nor the branch of the American government responsible for regulating payloads – so by extension the American government itself – should get to decide how to use a resource that belongs to the whole world by itself, without proper multi-stakeholder consultation. With Starlink as its instrument, and assuming the continued absence of proper laws to control how mega-constellations are to be designed and operated, SpaceX will effectively colonise a big chunk of the orbital shells around Earth. The community of astronomers has been especially vocal and agitated over Starlink’s consequences for its work, and a part of it has directed its protests against what it sees as SpaceX’s misuse of space as a global commons, and as a body of shared cultural heritage.

The idea of space as a public commons is neither new nor unique but the ideal has seldom been met. The lopsided development of spaceflight programmes around the world, but particularly in China and the US, attests to this. In the absence of an international space governance policy that is both rigid enough to apply completely to specific situations and flexible enough to adapt to rapid advancements in private spaceflight, people and businesses around the world are at the mercy of countries that possess launch vehicles, the regulatory bodies that oversee their operations and the relationship between the two (or more) governments. So space is currently physically available and profitable only to a select group of countries.

The peaceful and equitable enjoyment of space, going by the definition that astronomers find profitable, is another matter. Both the act and outcomes of stargazing are great sources of wonder for many, if not all, people while space itself is not diminished in any way by astronomers’ activities. NASA’s ‘Astronomy Picture of the Day’ platform has featured hundreds of spectacular shots of distant cosmological features captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, and news of the soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope is only met with awe and a nervous excitement over what new gems its hexagonal eyes will discover.

Astronomy often is and has been portrayed as an innocent and exploratory exercise that uncovers the universe’s natural riches, but closer to the ground, where the efforts of its practitioners are located, it is not so innocent. Indeed, it represents one of the major arms of modern Big Science, and one of Big Science’s principal demands is access to large plots of land, often characterised by its proponents as unused land or land deemed unprofitable for other purposes.

Consider Mauna Kea, the dormant volcano in Hawaii with a peak height of 4.2 km above sea level. Its top is encrusted with 13 telescopes, but where astronomers continued to see opportunity to build more (until the TMT became as controversial as it did), Native Hawaiians saw encroachment and destruction to an area they consider sacred. Closer home, one of the principle prongs of resistance to the India-based Neutrino Observatory, a large stationary detector that a national collaboration wants to install inside a small mountain, has been that its construction will damage the surrounding land – land that the collaboration perceives to be unused but which its opponents in Tamil Nadu (where the proposed construction site is located) see, given the singular political circumstances, as an increasingly precious and inviolable resource. This sentiment in turn draws on past and ongoing resistance to the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, the proposed ISRO launchpad at Kulasekarapattinam and the Sterlite copper-smelting plant in Tamil Nadu, and the Challakere ‘science city’ in Karnataka, all along the same lines.

Another way astronomy is problematic is in terms of its enterprise. That is, who operates the telescopes that will be most affected by the Starlink mega-constellation, and with whom do the resulting benefits accrue? Arguments of the ‘fix public transport first before improving spaceflight’ flavour are certainly baseless (for principles as well as practicalities detailed here) but it would be similarly faulty for a working definition of a global commons to originate from a community of astronomers located principally in the West, for whom clear skies are more profitable than access to low-cost internet.

More specifically, to quote Prakash Kashwan, a senior research fellow at the Earth System Governance Project:

The ‘good’ in public good refers to an ‘economic good’ or a thing – as in goods and services – that has two main characteristics: non-excludability and non-rivalry. Non-excludability refers to the fact that once a public good is provided, it is difficult to exclude individuals from enjoying its benefits even if they haven’t contributed to its provisioning. Non-rivalry refers to the fact that the consumption of a public good does not negatively impact other individuals’ ability to also benefit from a public good.

In this definition, astronomy (involving the use of ground-based telescopes) has often been exclusive, whether as a human industry in its need for land and designation of public goods as ‘useless’ or ‘unused’, or as a scientific endeavour, whereby its results accrue unevenly in society especially without public outreach, science communication, transparency, etc. Starlink, on the other hand, is obviously rivalrous.

There’s no question that by gunning for a mega-constellation of satellites enveloping Earth, Musk is being a bully (irrespective of his intentions) – but it’s also true that the prospect of low-cost internet promises to render space profitable to more people than is currently the case. So if arguments against his endeavour are directed along the trajectory that Starlink satellites damage, diminish access to and reduce the usefulness of some orbital regions around Earth, instead of against the US government’s unilateral decision to allow the satellites to be launched in the first place, it should be equally legitimate to claim that these satellites also enhance the same orbital regions by extracting more value from them.

Ultimately, the ‘problem’ is also at risk of being ‘resolved’ because Musk and astronomers have shaken hands on it. The issue isn’t whether astronomers should be disprivileged to help non-astronomers or vice versa, but to consider if astronomers’ comments on the virtues of astronomy gloss over their actions on the ground and – more broadly – to remember the cons of prioritising the character of space as a source of scientific knowledge over other, more germane opportunities, and to remind everyone that the proper course of action would be to do what neither Musk and the American government nor the astronomers have done at the moment. That is, undertake public consultation, such as with stakeholders in all countries party to the Outer Space Treaty, instead of assuming that de-orbiting or anything else for that matter is automatically the most favourable course of action.