‘Last year, Krzysztof Stanek got a letter from one of his neighbors. The neighbor wanted to build a shed two feet taller than local regulations allowed, and the city required him to notify nearby residents. Neighbors, the notice said, could object to the construction. No one did, and the shed went up.
Stanek, an astronomer at Ohio State University, told me this story not because he thinks other people will care about the specific construction codes of Columbus, Ohio, but rather because it reminds him of the network of satellites SpaceX is building in the space around Earth.
“Somebody puts up a shed that might obstruct my view by a foot, I can protest,” Stanek said. “But somebody can launch thousands of satellites in the sky and there’s nothing I can do? As a citizen of Earth, I was like, Wait a minute.”
Since last spring, SpaceX has launched into orbit dozens of small satellites—the beginnings of Starlink, a floating scaffold that the company’s founder, Elon Musk, hopes will someday provide high-speed internet to every part of the world.
SpaceX sent a letter too, in a way. After filing for permission to build its constellation in space, federal regulators held the required comment period, open to the public, before the first satellites could launch.
These satellites have turned out to be far more reflective than anyone, even SpaceX engineers, expected. Before Starlink, there were about 200 objects in orbit around Earth that could be seen with the unaided eye. In less than a year, SpaceX has added another 240. “These are brighter than probably 99 percent of existing objects in Earth orbit right now,” says Pat Seitzer, a professor emeritus at the University of Michigan who studies orbital debris.
For months, astronomers have shared images online of their telescopes’ fields of view with diagonal white streaks cutting across the darkness, the distinct appearance of Starlink satellites. More satellites are now on the way, both from SpaceX and other companies. If, as Musk hopes, these satellites number in the tens of thousands, ignoring them will be difficult, whether you’re an astronomer or not.’