Satellite constellations are ‘ruining’ the night sky that indigenous groups say hurt traditions
Companies like SpaceX, Amazon, OneWeb and others are launching megaconstellations of satellites into the night sky to provide internet access, but certain indigenous groups believe these initiatives amount to ‘astrocolonialism’ and are washing away cultural traditions.
The potential light pollution could ‘erase’ the Milky Way for a lot of people, particularly indigenous cultures, who have longstanding cultural traditions of looking at the stars.
According to a 2020 study, light pollution is seen as a form of ‘cultural genocide,’ destroying communities ability to see the stars.
‘Many Indigenous traditions and knowledge systems around the world are based on the stars, and the peoples’ ability to observe and interpret stellar positions and properties is of critical importance for daily life and cultural continuity,’ the authors of that study wrote.
‘The erasure of the night sky acts to erase Indigenous connection to the stars, acting as a form of ongoing cultural and ecological genocide.’
Certain indigenous groups believe satellite megaconstellations are ‘astrocolonialism’ and are washing away cultural traditions
As of August, SpaceX had launched more than 1,700 Starlink satellites into space, but the company has far grander plans than its current 90,000 users
In June, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said Starlink could have more than 500,000 users by mid-2022 and the company could invest approximately $30 billion in the project
As of August, SpaceX had launched more than 1,700 Starlink satellites into space, but the company has far grander plans than its current 90,000 users.
In June, CEO Elon Musk said the service could have more than 500,000 users by mid-2022 and the company could invest approximately $30 billion in the project through its lifetime.
According to the Verge, there may be more than 100,000 operational satellites in Earth’s orbit by 2030, or 25 times the current amount.
Indigenous cultures and ‘ways of knowing’ are based upon two connections: the land and sky, Jennifer Howse, a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3 and an education specialist at the University of Calgary told Vice via email.
‘Elders share and teach spiritual and scientific traditional knowledge by using these connections to the natural world,’ Howse said.
‘Teaching the motion and meaning of stars, planets, and the Moon in the night sky is lost when the younger generation cannot see the stars.
‘The glow of artificial light challenges and limits discovery, teaching, and our ability to find ourselves in the universe.’
The impact of these megaconstellations on indigenous people is being felt not just in the U.S., but all over the globe.
‘The concern I feel regarding megaconstellations is the same concern I feel when I see my country on fire or hear of my neighbors in the Torres Straits and their struggles with rising sea levels due to climate change,’ Karlie Alinta Noon, a Gomeroi woman and astronomy researcher at Australian National University told Vice.
‘The injection of thousands of metallic, highly reflective objects into our atmosphere is kindred to environmental degradation because it is changing our sky and we don’t yet know if we can reverse it.’
SpaceX’s Starklink and other satellite constellations are being used to help close the digital divide and provide internet access to remote areas, including in places where indigenous cultures live.
However, some of them want to build their own internet and keep the sky free of man-made constellations in favor of ones created by the universe, even if they are more well-known by names indigenous people did not give them, including the Pleiade, Orion’s belt and the Southern Cross.
North America’s Cree and the Inuit and the Tainui Māori of New Zealand all have different names for these constellations, including Pakone-Kisik, Ullaktut and Te Punga, respectively.
‘We have official constellations that are quite arbitrary, based on some discussion by essentially a few white guys a century ago, whereas we ignore the constellations of various Indigenous peoples even if we’re on those peoples’ lands,’ Hilding Neilson, a Mi’kmaw person and astronomer at the University of Toronto told the news outlet.
‘It’s not even marginalization that’s an issue—it’s erasure.’
Indigenous cultures (as well as other entities, including astronomers who have warned a lack of regulation will create a ‘Wild West in space’) are concerned that the mass deployment of these satellites may have long-lasting issues, both for the planet and space itself.
‘We need a mindset shift,’ Aparna Venkatesan, a cosmologist at the University of San Francisco, told Vice. ‘That might take a generation, but we need to start working away at it, and we need to start where things are now.
‘In a legal sense, it would be nice to view space as a shared commons that we are all respectfully dialoguing about, but we’re not there.’
As evidence of a ‘Wild West’ mindset, SpaceX and Amazon have repeatedly sparred over their respective projects, including Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos getting into a public spat in January.
SpaceX and satellite communications firm ViaSat have also had a public battle over the Starlink megaconstellation, with ViaSat claiming it poses environmental risks.
SpaceX has been in public spats and lawsuits over its Starlink satellites. This composite image was taken of the dusk sky over a sunflower farm in southern Brazil capturing passing Starlink satellites
In 2020, Venkatesan and a number of colleagues published an article warning of the consequences of these policies, calling for space to be reframed as a global common place that has the the heritage and future of humanity’s scientific and cultural practice.’
In addition to SpaceX’s 1,700 satellites, OneWeb has launched 322 satellites and will create a constellation of 648.
SpaceX and Amazon have repeatedly sparred over their respective projects, including Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos getting into a public spat in January
Amazon, via Project Kuiper, intends to have more than 3,200 satellites. The constellation would have the ability to serve about 95 percent of the world’s population and successfully position Amazon as a global ISP provider
Amazon, via Project Kuiper, intends to have more than 3,200 satellites.
The constellation would have the ability to serve about 95 percent of the world’s population and successfully position Amazon as a global ISP provider.
In July, Amazon announced that it had acquired Facebook’s internet satellite team to help with the project.
In March, researchers published a study that the increase in artificial satellites in space (along with space debris) are impacting space operations and ground-based astronomy.
These megaconstellations raise ‘significant concerns,’ including ‘increase night brightness’ and a new ‘skyglow effect,’ the authors wrote.
‘This is going to erase the Milky Way for a lot of people,’ Venkatesan added.
‘It’s going to make dark sky preserves and parks less relevant; it’s going to wash out meteor showers, and unlike streaks [of satellites], we can’t correct for it with software,’
OneWeb said it has spoken to indigenous cultures who have concerns about its megaconstellation.
‘We’ve had fruitful discussions with [Alaska Federation of Natives] and many other Alaskan Indigenous groups about how our work could help improve broadband access, leading to stronger public health, safety and economic opportunities in the rural parts of Alaska,’ the company told Vice in a statement.
‘We share our progress and capabilities often, and we always listen to any concerns that are raised.’
Starlink has helped groups such as the Pikangikum First Nation in Ontario, Canada, or the Hoh Tribe in western Washington state with Starlink.
The Hoh Tribe saw its internet speeds rise to between 45 and 65 megabits per second (Mbps) when they set up Starlink, rising over 100 Mbps in some places, well above the 0.3 and 0.7 they had experienced before, Melvinjohn Ashue, the tribe’s economic development director, told Vice.
The companies and those who are advocating for dark skies to remain as is are meeting with one another to come up with strategies at various conferences and workshops, but the potential impact on indigenous cultures still remain.
‘There are many issues and problems in the current governmental system,’ Eytan Tepper, a research coordinator and lecturer in space governance at Laval University.
‘I was trying to find other ways that we can develop space governance because the technology and engineers are not stopping, especially now, with commercial actors taking a leading role,’ Tepper added.
‘Now there is more interest in how we can take Indigenous perspectives to outer space governance.’
Jeff Doctor, who is part of the Cayuga people from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory and works at the Indigenous digital agency Animikii, told Vice it is a balancing act between corporations and the fight between indigenous cultures who wish to preserve their way of life.
‘This notion that providing access, and assuming everybody will have access, as good corporate internet citizens also detracts from Indigenous folks’ ability to live in their traditional ways: living on the land, not having to depend on the internet, not having to depend on neoliberal economies, and not having to have a job,’ he said.
‘It raises an interesting conundrum where there’s already this baseline assumption that everyone must have a job, be a good corporate citizen, and participate,’ Doctor continued. ‘If you don’t do that, you’re now a deviant or an other, which is the classic colonial narrative all the way down to the fur trade.’
Ashue said that Indigenous communities need to be engaged on these issues, asking for a ‘meaningful consultation’ instead of what has been done in the past, akin to checking off a box.
As the space industry continues to expand, particularly internet services, all of the constituents – corporations, astronomers, indigenous cultures and governments – will need to come to a happy medium that will attempt to put aside centuries of mistrust, particularly for the indigenous cultures.
‘It’s very nuanced, so I think we need to take it slow,’ Venkatesan explained.
‘Both astronomers and industry shouldn’t co-opt these marginalized perspectives for the bottom line that they want to see happen.’