Sci-fi Wifi: Bringing Us Together or Tearing Us Apart?

Group 10

Introduction

Elon Musk’s Starlink project aims to encompass the globe in an array of thousands of non-geostationary satellites to provide worldwide low latency, high bandwidth broadband, but while its purpose is to engender connectedness, it has so far caused division.  

SpaceX’s space-age advancements seek to provide global wireless internet access, enabling connection from even the most remote locations and expanding capabilities to connect to moving vehicles, vessels and aircraft.  The benefits of such a system are apparent, though it’s implementation and the associated drawbacks have sparked controversy, igniting ethical quandaries concerning the right of a private company to so greatly impact yet another of Earth’s finite common resources: the night sky. 

A prevailing law of business and industry goes as follows: If there is no law against something, then you are free to do it. Nobody owns the night sky or possesses the express legal right to unimpeded stargazing, no regulatory measures are in place to govern usage of space beyond military use, and as such SpaceX are free to capitalise on that resource. However, when viewed from an ethical standpoint the issue is not so binary. 

Extra-terrestrial Crisis: The Argument Against

The Starlink constellation is currently 1321 satellites strong, with plans to launch 30,000 more;  while Space debris is already an issue that gives scientists a headache, Starlink only acts to exacerbate the problem. To put matters into perspective, the target figure of 42,000 is 8-fold the number of satellites currently in orbit. Satellite broadband has already been achieved by Geo-orbit satellites more than 22,000 miles from Earth’s surface but due to the long distance the frequency is weakened leading to infeasibility for commercial use. Starlink circumvents that issue by stationing its satellite a mere 340 miles away.

The Kessler syndrome is a theory proposed by NASA scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, which considers the likelihood of space-debris from satellite collisions impacting with other satellites resulting in a destructive chain reaction. This drastic increase in objects in low Earth orbit increases the risk of ablation cascades, making all orbiting satellites more vulnerable. Despite these potential risks, the prevailing ethical argument against Starlink is its drastic impact on astronomy.

The faculty of astronomy was the first to flag the inevitable, stating that the frequency emission of Starlink overlaps with what radio astronomers use to study the cosmos, resulting in interference with telescopes including the new 1 billion USD Giant Magellan observatory. Indiana University’s Liese van Zee, chair of the National Academy of Science’s Committee on Radio Frequencies states that “As a general principle, radio astronomy facilities are particularly vulnerable to satellite downlinks… as radio telescopes cannot be protected from high-altitude transmissions through geographical shielding alone”.

Around 19 Starlink satellites were imaged shortly after launch in November 2019 by DECam on the Blanco 4-meter telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) by astronomers Clara Martínez-Vázquez and Cliff Johnson. The gaps in the satellite tracks are due to the gaps between the DECam CCD chips.

Visual astronomy techniques are also affected:  On November 18, 2019, a series of 19 Starlink satellites passed over the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory’s site in Chile, lasting for more than 5 minutes and heavily affecting the wide-field DECam instrument. According to Stanford University’s Bruce Macintosh, for the next decade the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope must deal with between one and four Starlink satellites in every image within an hour or two of twilight. At the time there were fewer than 200 Starlinks in orbit, representing less than 0.5% of the total number of proposed satellites that SpaceX wants to launch. The consequences are clear: wide-field astronomy designed to look for faint objects — prime goals of observatories like Pan-STARRS, LSST, and especially any observing program geared towards finding potentially Earth-hazardous objects — is going to be significantly hindered.

This interference in the work of others, as well as the resulting increase in risk to human wellbeing caused by the Kessler effect and hindrance of incident asteroid detection could be seen in virtue ethics as morally wrong. The resulting suffering comes from an inability to trust recorded data and wasted time and money of large research projects and their stakeholders and potential benefactors. This conflicts with the concept of reciprocity; SpaceX don’t want companies negatively impacting their work, so why is it okay for them to do so to others?

A Connected Community: The Argument For

Utilitarianism advocates for actions that result in the happiness of the greatest number of people in a society. While there are drawbacks to this technological advancement, it provides a potential benefit to a great many people by providing internet access without the traditional infrastructural requirements of underground cables. Starlink is set to become available soon in the Philippines where internet speeds are among the lowest in the world. Comprising over 7000 islands, the Philippines demonstrates the novel advantages of satellite internet over the conventional land-based infrastructure which can be expensive, inefficient and environmentally harmful.

SpaceX has already made deals to provide free internet to underprivileged rural school districts in Texas, where surveys report 39% of families have limited or no access to the internet, aiming for “equity and access for all students”. Studies have found that access to the internet can improve quality of life, resulting in a variety of benefits including an easier social life, greater awareness of current affairs, and a significant advantage in developing skills to secure a job. Further benefits of the Starlink system include improved recovery rate from natural disasters, advanced weather prediction, better earth observation, communication, and navigation capabilities.

Conclusion

There are currently no legal limits to regulate the use of space, and SpaceX has no duty of care over astronomical facilities or any other stargazers. The collateral damage of Starlink causes unprecedented disruption to research of astronomy, astrophysics, quantum physics, astronautics and beyond. However, Kantian theory considers that it is not the consequences of actions that determine their morality, but the intentions of the actor. While it brings unfortunate side effects, the Starlink aims for the development of society as a whole, to improve quality of life, connectedness and increase equity.

In expanding the bounds of connectivity we provide more opportunities to more people, improving the potential for communication and information access while reducing the possibility of being stranded in a signal dead-zone.  The resultant benefits and convenience that this fosters is great, and though interference with the night sky is a concern, the average family benefits more from their WiFi hub than their telescope. Based on this assertion, it is our initial decision that SpaceX can be seen as ethically justified in their project to make the World Wide Web truly worldwide.

12 thoughts on “Sci-fi Wifi: Bringing Us Together or Tearing Us Apart?

  1. I think the utilitarian argument for “Sci-Fi WIFI” is a strong one. It’s quite clear that by equipping people with internet access all over the globe has the potential to increase happiness and quality of life for the whole population. It allows business prospects for poorer communities that would have previously been deemed unreachable.

  2. Opening statement. The problem is clearly stated. The dilemma seems fairly clear, although a bit more polish may be needed. The reason I say this is that there is already an acknowledged problem with ‘space junk’. Is there space for 30,000 more satellites?

    Arguments for: There is an acceptable use of ethical theories but widen the application. There are other theories to use in support too!

    Arguments against: There seems to be no ethical theories that support the against argument. Focus on improving this for Assignment Two. Also, think about additional impacts such as the cost of launching the satellites, the low earth orbit and the chance for fatal impacts if the Kessler syndrome happens (unless we can be confident the satellites burn up in orbit.
    Quote: “The consequences are clear: wide-field astronomy designed to look for faint objects — prime goals of observatories like Pan-STARRS, LSST, and especially any observing program geared towards finding potentially Earth-hazardous objects — is going to be significantly hindered.” That’s great! But don’t forget the ethical support!

    Advice for Assignment Two: Think about the stakeholders, and what Options for Action can be taken. Given the environmental impact of launching 30,000 satellites (I think SpaceX uses carbon-based fuel), the environment is also a stakeholder! There are also future residents of Earth who have to deal with an ageing fleet of satellites.
    Try and drum up more comments. I’m perfectly OK with you striking deals – whereby you comment on other articles and they comment on yours.

  3. Interesting article. I think the construction of Starlink is worthy of consideration. From the perspective of utilitarianism, what needs to be considered is the comparison between the investment required now and the long-term benefits in the future. The future benefits are not only the profit of the operating companies, but also the convenience that other industries enjoy because of better infrastructure. Of course, the investment in a large number of satellites will bring new problems, and I believe that these problems can be properly resolved as time advances.

  4. For the starlink project, from my personal opinion it is good for special situation like desert and ocean cargo ship, since it’s very hard to access the internet by using traditional Lan connect or wireless connect. But it still cannot compare with traditional way accessing the internet in normal situation cause the bandwidth and net speed are disadvantages, and the fee is also very expensive.

  5. To promote this measure needs different countries negotiations rather than a company .That is because personal interest cannot be above the collective especially when most of the potential influence are unaware for the common people. So my opinion tends to be conservative.

  6. The global network the Starlink project is planning to build sounds great! Since Industry 4.0 was proposed a few years ago, the Internet of Things has been widely introduced into factories in recent years. Starlink’s construction can help factories realize faster and extensive information connection. As for the threat posed by too many satellites in the article, perhaps fewer will be needed in the future as technology improves. So I’m personally very bullish on Starlink.

  7. Really interesting, informative and well-written article. It is a very complex issue that has both great benefits and drawbacks, as described in the article.

  8. A very interesting and well-argued article on an important subject highlighting the seemingly irreconcilable ethical positions of conflicting objectives. One further consideration against the SpaceX Starlink project could be the vulnerability of space stations and their personnel from high impact – a possibility that will increase with the proposed growth in the number of satellites in orbit. However, it is hard to disagree with the article’s conclusion that there is a strong ethical argument in favour of the project. It surely has the potential to enrich the lives of so many including some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on earth.

  9. The authors’ well-constructed argument states that, as space is currently unregulated, Elon Musk and SpaceX can do what they like. Maybe it should now be regulated, with the Law of the Sea providing a starting point. This could provide a basis for balancing risks and benefits, such as the extension of wifi and broadband throughout the world versus increases in space junk and the difficulty in operating terrestrially based telescopes. The latter is likely to create pressure to site telescopes on the far side of the Moon, or in deep space, greatly adding to their expense.

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