How humans could redesign the night sky

Written in the stars: Russian company StartRocket wants to display adverts in the sky by 2021.

Is this a good idea? The sky is filled with artificial lights from planes and satellites, as real stars become ever harder to spot. Now, some are warning that they might disappear completely.

In January 2018, a company called Rocket Lab sent a large silver disco ball into space. It was was called it the “Humanity Star”, and it was there to “encourage people to consider their place in the universe.”

Astronomers were outraged. The Humanity Star’s light was blocking out real stars.

“This is stupid, vandalises the night sky and corrupts our view of the cosmos,” complained one astronomer.

But it could become more common. In The Atlantic last week, Marina Koren wrote an article titled: “What if we gave up on the stars?”

For most of us, light pollution is just a part of life. But what if, “instead of sentencing ourselves to many more years of starless night skies”, we constructed a new one using artificial satellites?

In January, Japan launched a rocket that will one day create on-demand “meteor showers”. And a Russian start-up has suggested using satellites to sell advertising space in the night sky.

But stars were not always just decoration. Long before calendars were invented, the stars were the most reliable way of keeping track of seasons. For thousands of years, explorers used stars to navigate the oceans.

The night sky was not just pretty — it was essential to our survival.

Reach for the stars?

Of course, those days are over now. Does this mean we can shape the sky however we want? We have already done it with nature on Earth, after all. Rearranging the stars would be an incredible tribute to human ingenuity.

“The natural night sky is our universal heritage,” says the International Dark-Sky Association. Even the light from the closest stars takes four years to reach Earth. Most take hundreds. The stars are far older than any of us. It would be a terrible shame to lose that sense of perspective now.

You Decide

  1. Should companies be allowed to advertise across the night sky?

Activities

  1. Design your own satellite which can be seen from Earth. What is its purpose? What does it look like? And is it worth blocking out the natural view of the stars?

Some People Say...

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

Carl Sagan, American astronomer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Last month, SpaceX launched 60 satellites into space. They are the first of up to 12,000, which could one day provide internet for the entire planet. Astronomers are worried that they will disrupt science and spoil our view of the stars.
What do we not know?
How easy it will be to see the stars in 100 years, or how our relationship with the stars will change as a result.

Word Watch

Light pollution
Excessive artificial light (street lamps, for example) which blocks out views of the stars. It also has a damaging impact on humans and wildlife.
Keeping track
This is because, unlike the weather, the movement of the stars followed a predictable yearly pattern.
International Dark-Sky Association
An organisation which campaigns against light pollution.
Closest stars
Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to Earth, at 4.37 lightyears away. It is actually made up of three stars which are so close that they appear as one.

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