Earth Matters: Trashing space, one satellite at a time

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Patti Wood

Where were you on the evening of this past winter’s solstice, Dec, 21, the longest night of 2020?

I know exactly where I was…staring up into space through high powered binoculars to observe an event that has not occurred since 1623 when Jupiter and Saturn aligned at night in a “great conjunction.”

And it has been nearly 400 years since Jupiter and Saturn passed this close to each other, although they are aligned in the sky about once every 20 years.

The date of the conjunction is determined by the positions of Jupiter, Saturn, and the Earth in their paths around the Sun, while the date of the solstice is determined by the tilt of Earth’s axis, so this rare coincidence was truly a once-in-a-lifetime celestial gift.

I don’t remember ever being so in awe thinking about the vastness of space and how other planets in our solar system are so permanent, so unchanged. This, sadly, is not so for our planet and the geospace surrounding it.

The difference, of course, is that humans live here and instead of being good stewards of our incredible life-sustaining and magnificent planet, we are trashing it.

We are all familiar with our habit of terrestrial trashings, such as destroying our rain forests, filling up our land and seas with plastic, polluting our air and water, and losing about 150 species every day, but it seems we humans are now intent on polluting space as well.

SpaceX, Amazon, One Web, Facebook and a few other companies are now actively launching or planning to launch their satellites into the Earth’s magnetosphere to provide 5G from space that will eventually cover every corner of the planet.

They claim the extremely high frequencies (millimeter waves) associated with 5G will assist with the delivery of enhanced mobile broadband and next-generation IoT devices by providing higher data rates and low latency across a constellation of satellites across the sky. To accomplish this, they will need up to 100,000 satellites.

There are already a lot of things floating around (or speeding around) in space, of course. There are about two thousand active satellites that help us predict the weather, handle telephone traffic and other routine functions.

Three thousand more “dead” satellites are also up there, silently circling the globe, waiting until they reach the point where they burn up in the atmosphere.

And that’s in addition to the 500,000 pieces of “space junk” that NASA knows about. 21,000 of these pieces are large enough to be mapped and tracked by NASA, since a collision with any one of them could damage or even destroy another satellite, a space shuttle or even the space station itself.

NASA is not happy about the launching of 5G satellites by private companies for non-essential use.

According to the NASA website, “The problem with adding thousands of new satellites to orbit is that there is only so much room up there. When too many satellites are present collisions can start to occur. Given that satellites travel at extremely high speeds, each collision creates a shotgun effect of debris that can damage nearby satellites. This sort of chain reaction could cripple the world’s satellite infrastructure if it gets out of hand.”

Concern is growing quickly among other governmental agencies, scientists, our allies and our enemies about who is really in control of this proliferation of objects in space. The FCC has approved the launching of these new satellites to help promote 5G, without any consultation with other branches of government, other countries, or any public input as to the potential impact of such deployment.

Meteorologists have complained that the significant number of new satellites and accompanying microwave signals will interfere with weather prediction.

Astronomers have demonstrated that adding so many new satellites to the sky will make their jobs much more difficult.

Even the military has expressed concern that these wireless transmissions are easily hacked and that this new cluster of satellites could jeopardize national security by interfering with their own elaborate space-based network of weapons and satellites.

Perhaps most concerning is that the bandwidths used by the satellites providing 5G are too close to the frequencies used for air navigation and could cause inaccurate readings on altimeters or even their failure.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Transportation have asked the FCC to stop approving more satellites while their concerns are further investigated. Several commercial aviation groups say the interference could lead to catastrophic failures and multiple fatalities.

Some legal experts have weighed in too, questioning the authority of the FCC to grant permits for this use and indeed the legality of this action, which they feel is in complete defiance of US domestic law.

And did I mention the health risks of the constant emission of radiofrequency microwave radiation from space…the very same radiation that has been shown to increase the risk of cancer and reproductive and neurological problems in humans and has the potential to have devastating effects on wildlife and the environment?

Or the rocket exhaust from regular launchings that contribute to ozone depletion and climate change?

Is this the future of space? Will we enable private corporations to have unlimited access to space that is fraught with serious risks, just so they can make lots of money? Is our pre-emptive claim to space the best way to secure international peace?

These are serious questions that need serious consideration, international cooperation and public input. So far, none of those things are happening. The only thing that seems to matter is how fast we can get private satellites into space.

We already have a lightning-fast fiber-optic international communications network that ties most of the world together and allows secure, economical and worry-free communication that is 100 percent safe for everyone and everything on the planet.

While it may not be as profitable or “futuristic” as launching 100,000 satellites into space, it eliminates almost all of the issues that are being raised by the exploitative ambitions of Elon Musk and his contemporary entrepreneurs.

It’s time to hit the pause button on the new race in space, and we hope the Biden administration will give this issue the urgent attention it deserves.

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