In 2019, the American corporation SpaceX launched nearly 60 satellites into orbit, the first of a promised “mega constellation” that would—in due time—provide worldwide satellite internet access. By the end of 2020, SpaceX planned to deploy more than 1500, with an ultimate goal of launching something in the range of 42,000 satellites. Astronomers immediately pointed out possible dangers from such a massive deployment, ranging from increased risk of collisions in space and the generation of hazardous debris to interference with sensitive optical astronomy instruments. The company went so far as to develop new coatings to diminish the satellites’ reflectivity, but astronomers observed that this was—far from being a complete solution—only a small step in the right direction.
Less seemingly useful objects have also found their way into the night sky. In January 2018, the American “spaceflight startup” Rocket Lab secretly launched the Humanity Star satellite—shaped somewhat like a spiky, shiny metallic ball—into space solely for the purpose of creating a “shared experience for all humanity,” per CEO Peter Beck. The satellite remained in orbit for a little over two months. Space, it seemed, was no longer the domain of reverent remove and awe, the source of a tiny smattering of fear.
Per the International Dark Sky Federation, 80 percent of the world’s population lives under “skyglow,” and so are unable to encounter the natural darkness and starlight of a night sky. In Singapore, as densely built and brightly lit as the cityscape is, the percentages are undoubtedly higher. It is entirely possible that the only night skies we have ever known, from where we sit on this island, are those we have made with our own technologies; our own lighted buildings and towers spilling over into a hazy blur, our own satellites launched for pleasure and profit into orbit far above—to linger, in some cases, for tens or hundreds of years.
What is the value of a sky—of a darkness, of stars—we can no longer reasonably claim to know, and that we have done our level best to transform into something else altogether? The value of a dark sky is hard to explicate, though the dangers of excessive light pollution seem much easier to list out: sleep disruption, anxiety, dangers to nocturnal flora and fauna of all sorts. Yet this same value—of a dark sky that we cannot reasonably experience within the lives we lead and the spaces we’ve created to inhabit—still seems worth defending as a broader principle.
Perhaps what the dark sky could symbolize—in terms of a technological humility, in terms of a world we are less comfortable tearing through to wholly rework—is what we seek to preserve, or, perhaps, to pursue. Perhaps the dark sky is no longer ours to live with as an everyday presence, but does that make it any less valuable to protect as a possibility, an ideal of what ought to be?
NAF programme title:
1. Jonathan O’ Callaghan, “The Risky Rush for Mega Constellations,” Scientific American, October 31, 2019.
2. Caleb Henry, “SpaceX submits paperwork for 30,000 more Starlink satellites,” SpaceNews, October 15, 2019. , accessed December 11, 2021.