How Elon Musk’s Internet May Kill Astronomy

How Elon Musk’s Internet May Kill Astronomy

I magine, if you will, that you’re trying to see something very far away. You’re squinting, focusing very hard. Perhaps you’re standing on the front porch of your house in Alaska, trying to see Russia to make sure they’re not up to anything sneaky.

I magine, if you will, that you’re trying to see something very far away. You’re squinting, focusing very hard. Perhaps you’re standing on the front porch of your house in Alaska, trying to see Russia to make sure they’re not up to anything sneaky.

Suddenly, someone throws something right past your face, right in front of your eyes. A ping-pong ball, maybe, bright and distracting.

Whatever. It’s gone now. Back to that focused stare, trying to make out that point in the far distance. Is it a submarine, getting ready to launch a cruise missile? Is it just a fishing trawler? It looks like-

Aargh, another ping-pong ball, right past you. Gee, that’s really annoying.

This keeps on repeating — and eventually, you’re forced to give up. You can’t serve as a defender of America, bravely and tirelessly watching for danger in the distance. Too many things keep cutting right in front of you, blocking your vision, even though each individual object moves by in an instant.

Now, let’s consider this analogy again — but this time, you’re peering through a telescope, trying to see a distant star. Except, annoyingly, a bright object keeps crossing in front of the telescope’s lens. You can’t get a good picture, and any measurements you try to take are thrown off each time this bright object flies past.

This is the impending danger of Starlink, a massive project being launched by Elon Musk and SpaceX. Starlink wants to bring internet to everyone around the globe.

But that internet may deal a crippling blow to astronomy — and even leave us more at risk from incoming asteroids.

It’s the kind of idea that could have come from the lips of Tony Stark in Marvel’s latest superhero film: global internet.

But in this case, it’s not just science fiction. SpaceX, the aerospace company owned by Paypal billionaire Elon Musk, is working to create a satellite broadband network that spans the entire globe, using nearly 12,000 satellites in orbits that criss-cross around the Earth.

Image for post

A mock-up of the paths of Starlink satellites, forming a mesh that covers the entire globe. Source.

And we’re not talking about slow, dial-up internet speeds here, either. Starlink projects that they’ll be able to support gigabit internet, with latency as low as 15 milliseconds. (In comparison, my Comcast cable package is giving me a speed of 190 megabytes, a fifth as fast, and a latency of 30 milliseconds.)

This means that you could get internet access at 5G speeds, from literally anywhere on the globe. Whether you’re in New York City or deep in the wilderness, your internet connection would be steady and accessible, as long as you can aim an antenna at the sky.

Starlink hasn’t given any indication of what prices they may charge for a connection, but the company has stressed that this internet will be “affordable.” If Starlink aims to market to people around the world (barely 57% of the world has consistent access to the internet), they’ll need to offer a price that will be reasonable to people outside first world countries.

Internet access that’s faster than cable, doesn’t require wires or installation, works in rural areas, and can be accessed anywhere around the globe. It sounds amazing.

So what’s the danger?

space technology internet environment science data science

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