Astronomers warn Elon Musk's satellites could change our night sky

The massive Starlink satellite network from SpaceX is causing worries.

Starlink satellites ready to go into orbit.

SpaceX
  • SpaceX recently launched the first 60 of a planned 12,000 satellites for its Starlink network.
  • The network will bring internet connectivity to an additional several billion people.
  • Astronomers worry that all the satellites in low orbit will ruin the night sky and hinder science.

SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, recently launched the first batch of its Starlink satellite network into orbit. It was either a remarkable milestone for an audacious plan or the beginning of the end for the night sky as we know it, according to some critics.

While only 60 of the satellites went up into space aboard the Falcon 9 on May 23, the long-term plan is to up that number to around 12,000 by the mid-2020s. The stated goal is for these satellites to offer internet from space, making sure every part of the globe has a broadband connection.

An hour after launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the 500-pound satellites went up into orbit, about 340 miles (500 km) above Earth. Their array made for an incredible display, captured here by an amateur astronomer over Netherlands:

Not everyone was feeling optimistic from the launch, however. A number of astronomers have come out to say that crowding the sky with more permanent lights (which might even be visible during the day) is not a technological feat to applaud.

The big difference here is that previous launches generally placed larger communication satellites in fixed high orbits of about 36,000 km and up above the equator. Musk's network will be in much lower orbit, likely not requiring bulky satellite dishes for contact but also moving quickly around the world. In fact, its first sightings were reported as UFOs.

As the astronomer Michael J. I. Brown of Monash University writes in The Conversation, if all the planned satellites will be above us, there's a good chance hundreds of them will be visible above the horizon at all times. As they are visible to the naked eye, they could outnumber and outshine the brightest stars.

Marco Langbroek, who captured the train of Starlink satellites on video, said he didn't anticipate how bright they would be, adding "It really was an incredible and bizarre view to see that whole train of objects in a line moving across the sky."

Ronald Drimmel from the Turin Astrophysical Observatory in Italy called this a "potential tragedy".

"The potential tragedy of a mega-constellation like Starlink is that for the rest of humanity it changes how the night sky looks," said Drimmel. "Starlink, and other mega constellations, would ruin the sky for everyone on the planet."

As reported in Forbes, astrophysicist Darren Baskill from the University of Sussex in the U.K. also chimed in, warning: "If we can see them [satellites] with our eyes, that means they are extremely bright for the latest generation of large, sensitive ground-based telescopes."

Indeed, another worry for the astronomers is that the satellites will make it hard for telescopes like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile to take obstructed views of the sky; any picture would likely include thousands of satellites. Radio astronomy may also be disrupted by countless satellite signals traveling back and forth.

Next for the Starlink project is to get the satellite count to 800, at which point the network will become operational. Musk sees this network, which can provide internet connectivity for up to 3 billion people, as an important new stream of revenue for SpaceX, coming into existence ahead of similar projects like Amazon's Project Kuiper from the tech rival Jeff Bezos. That system, called a "constellation" by Amazon, plans to feature 3,236 satellites in low-Earth orbit.

Currently, there are about 18,000 objects tracked in Earth's orbit, with 2,000 satellites.

For his part, Elon Musk has not ignored the issue, saying he sent a note to the Starlink team to figure out how to make the satellites less reflective, perhaps raising their orbits.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
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Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
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New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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