Where science and tech meet creativity.

[N.B. This post has been bouncing around in my head since I was in Hawaii for the American Astronomical Society Meeting several weeks ago. I haven’t written it yet because I suspect I’m going to piss off everyone, and that is actually not a goal, but sometimes finding the greatest good requires pissing off everyone, and I mean everyone.]

While I was at AAS I saw two different groups of humans talking about how their/our heritage by preserving the sky. They talked about how preserving their culture included preserving the sky; a sky that is sacred.

I also saw two different groups of people saying that culture is nice; saying they’d do what they could to preserve cultural heritages, but they’re going to do what they’re going to do because it advances greater things.

One of these groups – in both situations – was astronomers.

TL;DR 1 – Starlink: We are at a turning point. We have a choice to launch Starlink and other satellite constellations that will provide internet access to people in rural and remote places, or we can deny people the internet to make it easier for astronomers to do ground-based astronomy, in the process denying them educational, financial, and other opportunities. If we launch Starlink there will be consequences. Yes, it will slow the progress of astronomy, as we are forced to build into our observing plans the need to linger longer on targets and observe things in weird orders to make sure we get satellite free images. Yes, the sky will be full of satellites. But which is the greater good?

TL:DR 2 – TMT: We also have a choice about building one of the largest telescopes planned – the Thirty-meter Telescope – at Mauna Kea. We can forcibly deny people the chance to maintain their ancestral traditions at the top of Mauna Kea without the scar of one more massive telescope. Alternatively, we can mend relations and find a way to make TMT something everyone looks forward to, or we can build that telescope in the Canary Islands where the the science won’t be as great. Yes, this will mean more delays and potentially less science. But which is the greater good?

image credit: Alan L

Story 1: Of Mauna Kea

Back in 1968, when times were different and efforts were being made to pave over inconvenient Hawaiian culture with whiteness, a lease was pushed through that gave control of the Mauna Kea – a sacred site to the Hawaiians – to the University of Hawaii for the construction of telescopes. This 65 year lease left the University of Hawaii responsible for maintenance and security, allowed for 15 telescopes to be constructed, and required the indigenous population be allowed reasonable access to the mountain for their rituals and cultural celebrations. (Overly brief summary – see complete lease text here)

Today, the indigenous people of Hawaii are working to recapture their traditions that are still remembered by their elders, and that were recorded in writings and recordings. The Hawaiians aren’t exactly trying to take back their mountain, but they are trying to make sure it is better taken care of in the future, because let’s just say things have gotten a bit out of hand. Rather than going into details here, I’m going to refer you to these two official websites: Office of Hawaiian Affairs website on Mauna Kea, County of Hawaii website on Mauna Kea.

Things came to a head in 2017, after the international astronomical community competitively selected Mauna Kea as the future home of a new 30-meter Telescope that would dwarf everything else on the mountain (the building will be similar in size to Subaru’s, but the telescope will be a giant).

Image parents who have noticed their adult children are only kinda responsible in caring for their dogs (and sometimes forget to give them water – thank God for toilets). These parents might react poorly when they hear their children are about to become parents.

The indigenous Hawaiians saw how their mountain was only mostly taken care of, and they reacted poorly when they got the news about TMT.

And things have gone increasingly sideways ever since, with the Hawaiians asking (and demanding) to be made part of the process; asking for the land to be better cared for, asking for access, and asking to be seen and heard (instead of being patted on the figurative head and dismissed). (This is simplified.)

The argument coming from astronomy was that the benefits to astronomy outweighed any religious arguments the Hawaiians might have. The arguments coming from astronomy were that the benefits to science and the world outweighed the cultural needs of the Hawaiians. (This too is simplified.)

And things were said by astronomers that can never be unsaid. And things went to court. And only now, in 2020, do we see people successfully trying to build relationships through communications instead of litigation, and it is unclear how things are going to move forward, but the astronomers have more than once tried to just do their own thing, without regard to the local wishes. The were only stopped by Hawaiians literally barricading the road.

It’s unclear when and if TMT will be built at Mauna Kea, and there is a not-quite-as-good-but-still-good-enough site in the Canary Islands. (Yes folks, there is an option to Mauna Kea – it’s just not quite a perfect option). It remains possible that through honest listening and dialogue, a positive way forward will be found; one that allows a respectful building of the observatory and allows the Hawaiian people to feel their land is respected and they have the access to the mountain that best allows them to continue their traditions for generations to come. I

image credit: SpaceX

The Story of Starlink

Back in 2015, Elon Musk looked around the globe for problems he could solve and profit from. He had SpaceX, with the aim of backing up the human race on Mars (it was more complicated than that). He had Tesla, with the aim of putting an electric car in every garage (eventually) by innovating high-end and then lower- (but still high) end cars and all the needed battery and recharging infrastructure (again, I’m simplifying). He didn’t yet have the Boring Company for innovating mass transit (that would come in 2016). In 2015, Elon Musk looked at the world and seeing that not everyone has internet and decided to fix that so business men like him would be able to sell their goods and hire enough technologically literate people. The world needed access to internet, and thus started Starlink.

Before going forward, let’s consider the Digital Divide. Access to the internet gives us access to information, to websites that allow us to sell our ideas, goods, and services, to tools to compete for scholarships, grants, and opportunities. From settling arguments over “Where else have I seen this actor,” to allowing kids to compete in international robotics competitions, the internet changes lives for the good. People who don’t have access to the Internet miss all kinds opportunities. And lack of internet doesn’t just limit opportunities, it also makes required tasks harder to complete; students have to scramble to use library computers to submit homework other kids submit from home, and job applicants wait in line to complete things from public computers and have to store their lives on memory sticks instead of hard drives … But these scenarios assume that a community has public access to free computers that are on the internet. There are rural areas – farms in the fly over country (except where someone pays for a satellite connections). There are islands not connected by any physical lines to the global internet. And there are so many places in between that no one has paid to connect, and that no one will pay to connect because physical infrastructure is prohibitively expensive.

Enter Starlink (and all its planned competitors). These networks of low-orbit comms satellites plan to provide internet to these corners of the world. In May 2019, the first batch of 60 satellites was launched and it was very quickly realised that these satellites are really really really reflective. At various points in their orbit, these shiny pieces of hardware catch the Sunlight and reflect it back to the night-side of Earth, appearing brighter than most of the stars and planets in the sky.

The brightness of Starlink satellites led to a rash of people racing out to observe them night after night. People learned about magnitudes, and tracking, and orbits. And Astronomers got angry because these satellites were utterly totally and horribly bad for astronomy; their brightness is such that when they pass through the field of view of a massive telescope, their light can saturate the digital detector, like a camera phone pointed at the Sun, such that an entire column of data might be overwhelmed as the signal from the bright satellites spills from one pixel to the next (and the next and the next). When sensors look at objects that are too bright, it can cause a ghost image to effect multiple exposures, leading to bad data in those images. The only way to avoid these issues is to avoid observing where Starlink’s are located in the sky. This is possible, but it’s annoying and will cause it to take longer to obtain most data sets (and frankly, most astronomers don’t want the bother optimising their observations around the positions of moving satellites.

The thing is, sitting there at AAS in January, I listened to people emotionally argue that Starlink should be halted (and the other constellations should be prevented): They argued that the sky is our heritage and that we must preserve it as a mostly satellite free dome so our children can enjoy a light-pollution free future. Folks argued the sky is sacred and must be protected from the pollution of swarming satellites. As I listened, I kept hearing the parallels to the Hawaiians wanting their mountain protected because its vistas are their cultural heritage; the mountain is their sacred space.

And while TNT can be moved (with some impact to the science it can do) to the Canary Islands, the only way to get low latency internet to the world is with constellations of satellites.

Our shared sky

I have been looking sky ward my entire life. I still remember where I was the first time I say a satellite pass overhead. It was the summer of ’89 and I was part of a People-to-People science exchange to the Soviet Union. I was the second youngest of 20 some odd high school students who were there to study astronomy and take place in random recreational activities. That night, a group of us were camping not too far from a glacier in the Caucus mountains, and because being a teenager is hard, I’d left the tent I shared with a bunch of others and sat on a rock. The sky was the darkest I’d ever seen – we were hours drive from even a village – and as I sat their contemplating the things a 15 year old girl contemplates, I saw a tiny speck of light moving in a way I’d never seen. As I stared, I realised it could only be one thing – a satellite. That dot of light made me feel less alone and filled me with awe.

Ever since the first Sputnik launched in October 1957, people have been going outside to see satellites pass by. At star parties, people check to see if they’ll be able to glimpse the Hubble, ISS, or something else they love. Websites and apps, like Heavens Above, exist to make it easier for people to see satellites. Ham radio operators have made a sport of detecting satellite pings and bouncing signals off of some of their reflective surfaces.

When I hear the argument that having 5-10 satellites in the sky at once will ruin the night sky, I’m just confused. Satellites don’t wreck dark adaption – you can still see the Milky Way and the faintest stars. Satellites don’t make it impossible to see the Northern lights or to study (as kids often do) the movement of the planets against the stars or the phases of the moon. We already have so many planes (especially where I live, under the STL landing path), that these tiny non-blinking streaks will appear comparatively staid. And, dear White scientists, what sacred heritage are you claiming? I can’t think of any western child who is taken out and taught the darkest skies are our cultural heritage, and if the skies are sacred and need protected, why is it so hard to pass lighting ordinances?

So here we are.

We have a choice to either deny people the internet to make it easier for people to do ground-based astronomy, in the process denying them educational, financial, and other opportunities. Alternatively, we can slow the progress of astronomy, and build into our observing plans the need to linger longer on targets to make sure we get satellite free images, while at the same time allowing Starlink and other satellite constellations to grant global access to the internet you are using to read these words. Yes, they sky will be full of satellites, but which is the greater good?

We also have a choice at Mauna Kea. We can forcibly deny people the chance to maintain their ancestral traditions at the top of Mauna Kea without the scar of one more massive telescope their grandparents didn’t realise they were agreeing to the construction of in 1968. Alternatively, we can mend relations and find a way to make TMT something everyone looks forward to, or we can build that telescope in the Canary Islands where the the science won’t be as great. Yes, this will mean more delays and potentially less science, but which is the greater good?

I’m a scientist. Advancing our understanding of the universe is what I’ve dedicated my life to in one way or another. I don’t want to slow the progress of science, but I think that the greater good may come in embracing the launch of satellites like Starlink (with the understanding that this must lead to low-cost, global internet). I think the greater good will come in only building more telescopes at Mauna Kea if the Hawaiian people will also celebrate these new scientific facilities’ future first light.

We need to ask; which path is the greater good? That is the path we need to take, even if we don’t want to.