Opinion | Tony Jones: A problem in the night sky | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Tony Jones: A problem in the night sky

Mystery solved. Or so it seems based on the feedback I got on my recent column on Unidentified Aerial Phenomenon. In that column I wrote about a string of lights that I saw crossing the sky above Dillon Reservoir on a cold dark night last winter and the wonder and mystery that such a sight inspires in a person. 

Several well-informed readers were quick to point out to me that this phenomenon was probably a string of Starlink satellites. After viewing videos of some of these satellites I must admit that is far more likely the answer to the mystery than anything extraterrestrial. While that answers the question of what it was I saw that night, it opens up an entirely different area of consideration for Summit County residents who appreciate and would preserve our comparatively dark night skies.

Martie Semmer, from Blue River, was one of those who responded to my column and provided me links to information on the topic of dark skies and the current peril those skies are in. Semmer is the Western regional coordinator for the International Dark Sky Association and penned an article in July for the Summit Daily News on the importance of dark skies. 

Starlink and other types of satellites are a threat to dark skies in Summit County and contribute to an ever-increasing danger from space debris for space travelers and terrestrials alike. Certainly, the promise of satellite-provided internet access via Starlink to the underserved across the world is something to be appreciated. But at what cost? Consider that the Starlink program, first launched in 2019, will eventually be comprised of 12,000 satellites in orbit, with an estimate of over 100,000 satellites of all types to be in low-Earth orbit by 2030, some of which have only a three- to five-year lifespan. This is astounding and a bit disconcerting when you consider this growth in satellites could increase night-sky brightness by 250% above natural background, further obscuring our view of the heavens. 

Satellite-provided internet is great news if you live in an area where you can’t get service via cable or DSL. It can help you land a job where you can work remotely or read the e-edition of the Summit Daily News from afar. Satellite-based technology benefits us in other areas as well, including navigation, communications and security. But to achieve these laudable goals, must we sacrifice our dark skies for a sky that looks like there’s a mesh of Christmas lights spread across it? 

Space has become the Wild West, where countries and industries hoist equipment into the sky with little or no regulation to govern behavior. Because of this, there are thousands of tons of space debris whirling around the planet, each piece a potentially lethal projectile that could take down other satellites or spacecraft carrying humans. This is a problem that is only getting worse as short-term gains outweigh the long-term safety of our planet. Much like we did with our waters and air in previous years, we have allowed early pioneers in this industry to pollute low-Earth orbit, with no long-term plan to address the problem. And while there are some folks thinking about this issue and considering ways to address it, I’m not terribly hopeful given that there are so many players in space. These players include nations and industries of all types, all playing by their own rules.

Speaking of nations in space, there’s a new space race in the making. With that comes the potential for conflict in space, a possibility that many nations, including Russia and the United States are actively preparing for. With a war in space comes the likelihood of even more satellites and space debris, adding to the night sky brightness and an even greater possibility of a catastrophic collision in space that could destroy lives and the satellite-based technology that we depend on.

This isn’t science fiction, this is the reality of today. Dark and uncluttered skies matter in a number of ways, including to indigenous communities, climate research and monitoring, and to inspire those who may one day lead us further into the reaches of space. Dark skies matter and we may not realize how much till they are no more.

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