Thousands of satellites pollute Australia’s skies and interfere with indigenous peoples

(ORDO NEWS) — Since time immemorial, indigenous peoples around the world have observed, tracked and memorized all visible objects in the night sky.

This ancient knowledge of the stars has been meticulously combined with practical knowledge of the earth, sky, waters, community, and the Dream, and has been passed down from generation to generation.

One of the most famous and famous Aboriginal constellations is the constellation Emu in the sky, which appears in the southern sky at the beginning of the year. This is an example of a dark constellation, meaning that it is characterized by particularly dark patches in the sky rather than stars.

In contrast, space technology companies such as Starlink are increasingly competing to dominate the sky and possibly change it forever.

The modern space race has resulted in thousands of satellites being scattered around the Earth‘s outer orbits. Left unaddressed, these companies risk overpopulating an already crowded space environment, which could lead to the disappearance of dark skies.

Mega

Constellations Mega constellations are groups of satellites that communicate and work together in Earth’s orbit.

Since 2018, the Starlink project, run by Elon Musk‘s SpaceX, has launched about 1,700 satellites into low Earth orbit. The company plans to launch 30,000 more over the next decade.

The British company OneWeb has launched about 150 satellites and plans to launch 6,000 more. And Amazon intends to launch another 3,000 satellites into different orbits.

Each of these companies is taking to the skies to expand Internet access around the world. But even if they achieve their goal, sky watchers, and especially indigenous people, are wondering: at what cost?

Stripes in the Night

People around the world started noticing stripes in our skies shortly after Starlink’s first launch in May 2019. They were unlike anything seen before.

Astronomers are accustomed to observing the sky and encountering interference, which often comes from airplanes or random satellites. However, the purpose of the mega constellations is to cover the entire planet without leaving a single place untouched. Megaconstellations are changing our collective understanding of the stars. And there is currently no known way to remove them.

It has been observed that one mega constellation creates up to 19 parallel bands in the sky. These bands interfere with astronomical observations, and as a result, a significant amount of scientific data can be lost.

As they pass across the sky, scattering the light of the Sun, the dark constellations become even dimmer, further polluting indigenous knowledge and their kinship with the environment.

Further research into the effects of the mega constellations showed that as they orbit the Earth, the sun’s rays bounce off them and dissipate in the atmosphere.

The authors of this study concluded that as a result, we are collectively experiencing a new type of “sky glow” – a phenomenon in which the brightness of the sky increases due to anthropogenic light pollution.

According to initial calculations, this new source of light pollution increased the brightness of the night sky around the world by about 10% compared to the natural glow of the sky measured in the 1960s.

Currently, the upper limit of acceptable light pollution in observatories is 10% of natural skyglow, which means that we have already reached the limit.

In other words, scientific observations of the sky are already in danger of becoming irrelevant. If the excess skyglow increases even more, the observatories will be under serious threat.

Indigenous Sky Sovereignty Indigenous

knowledge systems and oral traditions tell us about the intricate and complex relationships that indigenous peoples have with their environment, including the sky.

For example, in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures there is no concept of “outer space”. They have only a continuous and connected reality in which coexistence with all that exists is of paramount importance.

As noted by the Bawaka Country, which lives in the northeast of Arnhem Land: “… harming the Land of Sky, an attempt to take over it, is the ongoing colonization of the multiple life worlds of all those who have permanent connections with the sky and beyond.”

The desecration of the sky affects the sovereignty of the indigenous peoples, as it restricts access to their knowledge system, just as the desecration of the land deprived the first peoples of their countries, cultures and way of life.

For example, the Gamilaraai and Wiradjuri peoples of New South Wales watch emus in the sky to determine when it’s time to hunt emu eggs – and most importantly, when it’s time to stop. How would the Hamilari know when to stop collecting eggs or when to hold the annual ceremonies signaled by the sky emu if it were no longer visible?

Likewise, important parts of the Yukurrpa or Dreaming of the Martu people of Western Australia lie in the constellation of the Seven Sisters. How could they keep this knowledge if they couldn’t find any of the Sisters?

Indigenous history teaches us about the devastating effects of colonialism and how the effects of a colonial program can be mitigated by prioritizing the health of the country and community.

According to astronomer Aparna Venkatesan and her colleagues: “… the way and the pace of the ‘occupation’ of near-Earth space increases the risk of repeating the mistakes of colonization on a cosmic scale.”

Indigenous active sky sovereignty recognizes the relationship between earth and sky, and that taking care of the country includes taking care of the sky. In doing so, it challenges the unfettered power of technology corporations.

Harmful to fauna, we harm ourselves

Understanding that the world (and even the Universe) is interconnected, we see that no living creature is immune from the consequences of sky pollution.

Currently, local fauna such as the Tammar wallaby, magpie, bogong moth and sea turtles are experiencing declines in numbers and reduced quality of life due to exposure to light pollution.

Migratory species are particularly affected by light pollution, which can cause them to lose access to their migratory route. Australian fauna faced such a crisis even before the appearance of megaconstellations.

As skyglow and light pollution increase, positive outcomes for native fauna and migratory species decrease.

Next Steps

Several companies have made efforts to reduce the impact of megaconstellations on skyglow.

For example, OneWeb decided to launch fewer satellites than originally proposed and designed them to be at higher altitudes. This means that they will give less celestial glow, but still cover a larger area.

On the other hand, Starlink showed no interest in operating at higher and lower altitudes for fear that this would affect the speed and latency of the Starlink network.

However, they tried to reduce the illumination of their satellites by applying a new anti-reflective coating on them. Coating methods have been shown to reduce reflected sunlight by up to 50%. Unfortunately, not all wavelengths of scattered light are reduced by this method. Therefore, multi-wavelength astronomy and various animal species are still under threat.

We will need new solutions to navigate our increasingly polluted atmosphere, especially if communications monopolies continue to dominate near-Earth space.

Just as some companies have begun to consider tactics to avoid increasing skyglow, all space technology companies must be held accountable for increasing pollution in an already polluted space.

Recommendations such as those developed by the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee offer solutions to this problem. They propose lowering a satellite’s orbit when it is no longer needed, allowing it to disintegrate as it falls to Earth.

However, these are international recommendations, so there is no legal basis for this practice.

And given that collisions have already occurred between some mega-constellations, and about 20,000 pieces of space debris are already hovering above the Earth, reducing orbital pollution should also be a priority.

Reducing air pollution has also been shown to drastically reduce the natural brightness of the sky, a potential solution to improve the visibility of the night sky, not to mention cleaner air for everyone.

When evaluating indigenous knowledge systems, this value should extend to the natural environment in which this knowledge is embedded and based. In Australia, maintaining dark skies is not only vital to the continued existence of indigenous and astronomical knowledge, it benefits all of us.

One of the main life principles of indigenous peoples is to evaluate the sustainability of their actions. By accepting this on a larger scale, we can create a reality where we do not pose a threat to our own survival.

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