Straight Dope 3/10/2023: Will Elon Musk's Starlink satellites ruin space travel?

Will Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites ruin space travel?

I’ve been meaning to talk with Elon about this. “Elon,” I’ll say, or perhaps “Mr. Musk” – titans of industry always like it when you suck up – “you know that tech world saying about moving fast and breaking things? This may not be the best place to try that out.”

I speak here of low earth orbit (LEO), the region from 160 km to 2,000 km above the earth. Starlink, a venture of Musk’s SpaceX rocket company, is building what space folk call an LEO satellite constellation – a global satellite-based Internet service that, when the first phase is complete, will comprise 12,000 satellites providing high-speed broadband service to most of the planet, including lots of places with poor or non-existent connectivity now.

Twelve thousand is an impressive number, but what’s even more impressive is that Starlink as of March 2023 had 3,227 satellites up and working, according to one space tracking buff, making the firm by far the largest private satellite operator in the world. If you’re in the market and live in an area where Starlink is available – right now coverage is mostly limited to the developed world – you’ll pay $599 for a satellite dish plus $120 per month for service.

That’s for Starlink Basic, as it were. There’s more coming after that. SpaceX has gotten permission from the Federal Communication Commission to add another 30,000 satellites, for a total of 42,000. And now that Starlink has demonstrated proof of concept, competitors are piling in. Amazon has obtained FCC approval for Project Kuiper, a 3,236-satellite constellation, and China is known to be planning a constellation with 13,000 satellites. One consulting firm predicts a total of 24,500 satellites will be launched by 2031; others claim it’ll be more like 100,000.

Which is why the fail-fast attitude of Musk and other technologists has a lot of people worried. A recent study found satellite streaks on images taken by the Hubble space telescope. We’re seeing headlines like “Elon Musk should not be in charge of the night sky,” which is a slight exaggeration, since Starlink’s plans need federal approval. But the thinking is, the FCC’s expertise is in communications, not space. They’re basically letting Musk do what he wants.

One big concern is the Kessler syndrome, which your columnist has written about in the past: a satellite collides with another orbiting object, flinging thousands of shards in all directions, which smash into other orbiting objects, which themselves explode, creating still more flying junk … you get the picture. Possible result: the sky is filled with so much fast-moving space debris that LEO becomes unusable.

To be clear, the Kessler syndrome won’t be a chain-reaction disaster that all happens at once; rather, collisions will become more frequent over time. China has already claimed a couple of Starlink near-misses (the U.S. disputes this). In 2021, UK researchers claimed Starlink was responsible for 1,600 close encounters between spacecraft per week – and the company had a lot fewer satellites aloft then.

So there’s a tradeoff. On the one hand, “Starlink [could] ruin space travel forever,” as one tabloid headline breathlessly put it. On the other, you’ll be able to download cat videos in the middle of the Sahara. Or, more seriously, maintain vital Internet communication if your country is invaded by aggressors who trash the land lines, as happened in Ukraine.

Collisions aren’t the only potential problem with Starlink and other satellite constellations. A sampling of other issues:

  • They’re interfering with astronomical research. The thousands of shiny spacecraft criss-crossing the sky are messing up astronomical observations, not only those made from ground-based facilities but also, as indicated, expensive space telescopes that were supposed to be immune to earthly drawbacks. An analysis found that 3% of Hubble time exposures were marred by satellite streaks.

  • They could wreck the climate . You thought the climate was already wrecked? Things can always get worse. After getting flak for putting some satellites into relatively high orbits free of atmospheric friction, where they’d stay circling for decades, Starlink dropped their altitude by half, meaning they’ll drop out of orbit when obsolete and burn up after a relatively short time. But that might not be such a good idea either. As noted in a 2021 study, satellites are mostly made of aluminum, and when they disintegrate on re-entry, they could become the main source of high-altitude aluminum particles, far exceeding what we get naturally from meteoroids. Scattering clouds of aluminum dust at high altitudes was once proposed as a way of blocking the sun to head off global warming, an idea generally considered insane. Now, the authors warn, Starlink and other satellite operators are going to be doing it anyway as an “uncontrolled experiment.”

  • They’ll block the view of astronomers looking for deadly asteroids. Astronomers are said to find Starlink satellites especially bothersome at sunset and sunrise, prime viewing time for spotting asteroids on a collision course with earth. Scoffers may say: We’ve gotten through our entire history as a species without worrying about asteroids, and now they’re a five-alarm crisis? Apparently they are, and one concedes we had that doozy in Siberia in 1908. As yet unanswered is what we do about a killer asteroid if we find one, but one problem at a time.

With all that going on, it’s no surprise tech critic Paris Marx in the above-cited essay for Time magazine sniffily wonders who appointed Elon Musk king of the sky, and chances are the current era of minimal oversight will soon be coming to an end. In 2021, the G7 countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the US, and the European Union – agreed to work on ways to manage space traffic. But Russia and China, both potentially major players, aren’t part of the conversation. Given the hostile international environment, the kind of thing that would really help – say, a global clearinghouse for info on current and planned orbital activity by all nations – is likely a long way off.

Even so, a more rigorous regulatory process of some kind is on the horizon. Paris Marx doesn’t specify who he’d rather have in charge of the night sky instead of Elon Musk, but it’s easy to imagine some faceless agency or perhaps – dare I say it – an international constellation of faceless agencies whose signoff will be required for future launches. Applicants for new satellite systems no doubt will have to file detailed plans including environmental impact statements or equivalent documentation – and considering how massive these documents are for projects affecting relatively tiny parts of the U.S., one shudders to think what they’ll be like when the stakeholders consist of everyone on earth.

There are sure to be public comment periods in which everybody from astronomers to the Sierra Club to wealthy owners of mountaintop retreats will get the chance to kvetch about the deleterious impact of more spacecraft on their professional work, the climate, the biota, their emotional well-being, and whatever else they consider important, or at any rate figure will hold up the project. Proponents will likely have to put up multibillion-dollar bonds against damages. There will be abundant opportunities for lawsuits. If terrestrial projects are any indication, approvals will drag out for years.

Which is too bad in some ways. For all the complaints and dire warnings, little has gone seriously wrong since Starlink began heaving satellites aloft at 60 or so a pop (seriously, the launch vehicles look like giant Pez dispensers). The one unplanned collision between orbiting objects occurred in 2009, long before Starlink. Not to go all Ayn Rand on you, but whatever you think of Elon Musk, you have to give the guy credit for creating an entire industry – well, revolutionizing an industry; I realize outfits like Iridium have been around awhile – in just a few years, mostly on his own say-so. For better or worse, that era will soon be over and won’t come again.

Then again, it’s not gone yet, and international regulatory initiatives being the slow-moving beasts they are, it may linger for a while – unless, of course, something goes disastrously wrong and the public demands action. Which is why Musk, or at any rate his minions at SpaceX, would be wise to move deliberately and not break things they can’t fix.

For the most part it appears that’s what they’ve done – see the firm’s 2/22/22 statement of changes made in response to complaints here. These measures have been reasonably well received by critics, from what I can tell, but there’s still concern about what Starlink’s competitors might do.

Long story short, the arrival of the bureaucrats is inevitable, Elon. Just don’t hasten the day.


After some time off to recharge, Cecil Adams is back! The Master can answer any question. Post questions or topics for investigation in the Cecil’s Columns forum on the Straight Dope Message Board,

Another annoying side-effect of the Starlink constellation is that they have caused a distinct UFO flap among air pilots and other observers. I’m not talking about the spectacular Starlink trains that can be seen shortly after a launch, but the strange flares that the satellites produce when they are in their appointed orbit, and catch the light of the Sun near the horizon.

Here’s Mick West on the subject.

This effect can spuriously increase the level of UFO belief, which is already high because of the recent Navy film clips.

Communication satellite constellations are among the best-behaved satellites in LEO because to provide the needed ground coverage their orbits have to be carefully planned and stuck to. And it’s hardly like Starlink blithely ignores concerns; lowering the satellites’ orbits was intended to improve their retirability to help avoid Kessler syndrome, only for someone to find something to bitch about anyway; ya’ can’t win.

I suppose that the march of progress and with it the march of civilization includes the march of bureaucracy. But it’s kind of discouraging to be singing “Don’t Fence Me In” when we’ve barely even started to maintain a robust presence in space. Speaking of Rand, I’m reminded of her novella Anthem where it took a committee seventy years of study and debate to officially approve the use of candles instead of torches.

These days Internet access is essential and telecoms have often struggled to provide reasonable, high speed services to rural and remote areas. Musk’s solution has some problems, but it is ridiculous to think it is going to be what prevents us from detecting a hypothetical earthbound asteroid.

Climate concerns are real, and sometimes overestimated or underestimated, but the federal government should be doing proper assessments before approving things and getting expert advice if dealing with novel matters.

If space research was so badly impacted, and good evidence it has is not provided in the column, the feds shouldn’t have approved a copycat project. Does the 3% of marred exposures mentioned mean the collected data is useless, or just a small artifact over a large field? It is not yet a big enough number to cause personal handwringing, though doubtless many astronomers feel otherwise, since it is likely to increase.

The column mentions pricing but to me the bigger problem is that those prices may be too high to provide the service to the impoverished in developing countries who might most benefit. Approving a project in one country on behalf of the entire planet should require some give and take, perhaps along these lines.

It should be expected that other countries with the technological means, hoping to increase their influence and global reach will also launch similar projects if they have not done so. What with wishes for control and whatever is salvageable in terms of privacy, there are always going to be concerns about such projects.

Given global relations, such a project would eventually have been done somewhere by someone. They might offer better prices to further lengthen silk roadways. If Musk is responsive to reported concerns, his Chinese equivalent may or may not be equally so, especially with regard to our greatest nemesis since the dawn of humanity - the sun - a source of light and heat likely more powerful than a smattering of dust.

Funny; I’m reminded of the time that an Ayn Rand novel featured a reclusive capitalist who proved all of his doubters wrong by breaking the 2nd law of thermodynamics and inventing perpetual motion machines. So maybe Rand novels aren’t the best guideline for reality.

You guys do realize that these rules and regulations aren’t there to mess with Elon, right? They’re there to keep low Earth orbit safe for human use going forward. The line of thinking, “well, it hasn’t been a problem so far, so there’s no use worrying about it” is how we got into so many environmental messes that I’m honestly shocked that anyone is trying the same line now.

Breathless headlines aside, I don’t see any evudence that Elon Musk’s project is about to be halted due to any of the concerns raised. These concerns are simply being brought up for discussion, and I don’t see anything wrong with that; now we should use the scientific method, and run experiments to determine how major each concern truly is.

This is, indeed, not a real problem. If we eventually grow our presence in space with multiple commercial or state owned stations, even more satellites in even wider orbits to facilitate communication, etc - we will absolutely create more problems for earthborne or low earth orbit based telescopes. Sort of like trying to star watch on a grassy hill in what is now central park as New York city is built up around you.

But the capabilities that this greater presence in space will give us resolve this issue very easily. The JWST is not in Earth’s orbit; it’s orbiting the sun along the same path we follow but a million miles behind.

Once Earth’s immediate orbit is swarming with satellites and space stations at a level ten or a hundred times what we have now - and the industrialization of space will eventually require this, in a decade or three or ten -then ground based or Hubble type telescopes will be useless. Much like how a handheld telescope used in Times Square is useless today. And that’s inevitable.

With that in mind, I think if we can really bring high speed internet to the whole world we absolutely should (and a cost for Elon Musk getting to use orbit to sell internet to us in the “developed” world should absolutely be requiring him to make it affordable for people in the “developing” world to use the service). I think that would have greatly positive effects on human societies worldwide.

When the supposed “march of progress” involves contamination and potential denial of a common resource that cannot be readily remediated, a certain amount of prudence and careful consideration rather than just proceeding with abandon and wanton lack of caution. “Fuck around and find out,” is never a good philosophy when it comes to actions with potentially global consequences, notwithstanding Musk’s complete dismissal of the concerns of the astronomy community on the impact upon ground-based celestial observations. The dismissive claim that astronomers can just “mask out” flares from streams of satellites in Low Earth Orbit, or eliminate the effects by filtering in post-processing are so completely obtuse and ill-informed that it is frustrating to see them repeated as if they are authoritative statements by expert astronomers rather than just an off-the-cuff excuse for ignoring those concerns. And if LEO is heavily contaminated by debris in a progressive “Kessler Syndrome” phenomenon, it may make entire ranges of azimuths uninhabitable, and could potentially even make access to orbital space at all risky and prohibitive.

I’ve spoken to a now-retired surveillance analyst formerly at the USSTRATCOM Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) who was aghast at the decision to allow SpaceX (and other operators because they aren’t the only company trying to do this) to deploy satellites en masse with little in the way of controls or accountability and with the fallacious claim that all satellites and debris above 500 nmi will somehow disappear within five years. He claimed to have Monte Carlo run scenarios in which a significant number of runs predict a Kessler-like condition within a few decades or sooner, making the possibility of denial of orbital space a very real statistical possibility.

The other problem is that relying on Starlink obviates the pressure to improve ground infrastructure to provide Internet access as a basic service the way we do with phone, power, and other utilities, while the system itself is both controlled by a commercial entity which can profiteer by jacking up prices, and is vulnerable to both natural hazards (a Carrington-type event) and hostile action like cyberattack or physical interception, and there is literally nothing that can be done to real protect against those hazards. It is bad enough that China is putting up spacecraft and creating hazards in violation of international agreements and accepted codes of conduct (not that the United States and the former Soviet Union didn’t do that, too, albeit not as a matter of deliberate policy) without having a commercial entity essentially acting like a rogue space power with virtually no oversight.

The less said about Rand, her terrible writing, obtuse philosophy, and hypocritical personal conduct, the better. She is not an example of anything that should be emulated or reproduced in reality, and how anyone over the age of 20 thinks that anything she wrote or said comes from any place of wisdom is beyond comprehension. Or, in more pithy terms, her “philosophy of Objectivism, which is a nice way of saying, ‘being a selfish asshole.’”

“Ayn illustrated her beliefs in novels like Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead; stories of rapey heroes complaining about how nobody appreciates their true genius.”


I am a simple caveman and know relatively little of the struggles between Musk and global and professional stakeholders. It is not obviously inevitable the industrialization of space will require a tragedy of the commons, and is a serious governmental failure should it occur. But are the strongest arguments against SpaceLink or LEO issues represented in this column? Has there been any real progress in international space law, any mechanisms for accountability or insurance, or even doing plausible environmental and impact assessments?

No, no, and yes.


Just because Rand was both objectionable and almost completely wrong does not mean that it is absolutely impossible to be wrong in a way diametrically the opposite of her. “Let’s ban any private enterprise that hasn’t been pre-vetted by the Committee of Public Safety” is only slightly less a parody of anti-capitalism than the one Rand presented in Anthem. And no, I’m not saying that’s what is necessarily happening here. But I get really sick of the the Musk-bashing.

This straw-maning to characterized informed concerns and objections to Starlink (and other massive ‘constellations’ of satellites in LEO) as “Let’s ban any private enterprise that hasn’t been pre-vetted by the Committee of Public Safety” is neither accurate no persuasive. There are real, substantive, verifiable concerns with Starlink, and dismissing them as just something astronomy nerds should live with or that technomagical solutions will fix some time in the indefinite future are obtuse and represent the same kind of thinking that has led us into climate change, the potential for global nuclear annihilation, et cetera.

And just to make it absolutely and objectively clear because it has become such an issue in the past, my comments were only in reference to Starlink and SpaceX, with no mention whatsoever of the principal or his personality. Trying to characterize those issues as “Musk-bashing” (your words, just quoted for clarity) is disingenuous to the extreme.


I concede that I over-reacted. I’m having health issues and have been cranky as hell the last ten days.

Not the only one.

(some of my friends worked on the Hiscock Radiation-Belt Explorer, nee Explorer 1 Prime)

I remember an old Arthur C. Clarke story where transmissions from orbiting satellites were used to destabilise a repressive regime by transmitting uncensored content down to earth. Is this not something that Starlink could be used for?

Has Musk made some deal with the Chinese (and Russian) governments to censor the transmissions over their countries, and if so, why?

It could be, although Musk would have to deal with sanctions from these nations. And potentially with his satellites being taken out by a foreign power (although the fact that it’s such a large swarm of so many satellites will mitigate that).

Why would Egolon Musk do something decent when there is no money in it for him? And the Chinese could even stop his Teslas being made in China (he built a Mega-F*ctory in Shangai that exports a lot, I seem to remember) and ban the sale of imported Teslas in one of the most important markets in the world for EVs.
And Starlink does not just broadcast down for all to see: you need a special terminal with the right decoder that usually costs serious money and that can be geolocated to work only in certain places and not in others, or for some things that move like a drone only here but not over there, so as not to bother Brother Putin too much. Or at least pretend to. Just as an insurance in case tanTrump was elected president again, or something. It IS complicated, I tell you…
TL;DR: Musk has not made a deal, neither with China nor with Russia, it is simply not in his interest at all. No upside, many potential downsides.

“I Remember Babylon”. In the story, a American advertising expert has been hired by an Eastern bloc power (hinted to be Communist China) to advise how to flood the USA with satellite-beamed programming designed to appeal to decadence and corruption: “The FCC can’t even protest to a country that doesn’t exist in the eyes of the State Department”.

IIRC (and it’s been a long time since I read that story), it was going to be mostly porn with propaganda interspersed. Of course, this was written way back when it was difficult to acquire porn. Which means not only before the interwebs but even before the '60s sexual revolution.

And a rated M for Mature History Channel: “Torture Through the Ages”, or “Nuremburg: The Classified Photographs”. And “Washington Confidential”, a video tabloid airing every bit of dirt that can be dug up on politicians, immune to libel lawsuits or privacy laws.

If we’re talking about thousands and thousands of satellites being added to the ones already there, then I have to believe the risk for a disaster has to increase accordingly. And what about terrorism? Once all of these satellites are added, any terrorist group that could get their hands on, say, 100 rockets that can reach low earth orbit could destroy satellites and create a cascade effect that could blossom into a true disaster.

Is there even any accurate way to calculate the true risk all these satellites may have?