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”.
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.
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.