What If We Gave Up on the Stars?

Andrey Prokhorov/Shutterstock.com

The night sky is already dotted with shiny satellites and other artificial lights. One day, maybe that’s all there will be.

In the middle of the night, the view from the rooftop of my eight-story building is bursting with light. The bright beams of passing cars throw luminous tracks across the pavement, and the windows of homes and offices, restaurants and shops, glow gold even from miles away. The Washington Monument cuts the night sky like a birthday candle in a dark room. The stars, the radiant objects that gave rise to this cityscape—to all things, really—are nowhere to be seen. If a pinprick of light does shine through, it might be a star—or, as you’d soon realize, it might be another artificial fixture of the modern world, a plane or a satellite.

Many city dwellers have all but given up on seeing a night sky glittering with countless cosmic specks. We settle for a sprinkle here and there, if we’re lucky, or the moon. Even outside dense urban centers, light pollution has become inescapable for most people on Earth, and things aren’t getting any dimmer. Some light-loving crusaders have proposed adding more artificial light—even an artificial moon—to the night sky, raising an uncomfortable but intriguing question: What if we gave up on the stars altogether?

What if, instead of sentencing ourselves to many more years of starless night skies, we constructed a new one, furnished with artificial objects launched high into space, engineered to do the twinkling instead?

This would be a depressing defeat, and quite dystopian. When I asked John Barentine, the director of public policy at the International Dark-Sky Association, a nonprofit that works to mitigate light pollution, he began to lament. “How incredibly disconnected we have become from that aspect of nature,” Barentine said.

He wouldn’t be surprised if it happened someday, though. A redesign of the night sky might sound like science fiction, but humankind has been dramatically altering environments on Earth for even longer. Outer space was just another one. When human beings finally reached it, fairly recently in our history, some transformation was inevitable.

The first generation of satellites in orbit around Earth, in the 1950s and 1960s, were a hit. Stargazers marveled as they passed overhead, visible only during twilight, when sunlight could still reach the objects. The satellites’ shiny surfaces caught and reflected the sun’s rays, appearing as tiny pinpricks gliding against the dimmed sky. Today, you can get text alerts about when to look for the brightest satellite in orbit, the International Space Station.

Thousands of satellites have been launched into orbit since humankind became a spacefaring species. The majority provided the same set of functions, such as communication, navigation, and spying.

But recently, there’s been an uptick in some unconventional uses.

Last year, the American company Rocket Lab launched a spherical satellite named Humanity Star that had no function except, as its CEO said, to unite people, “no matter where you are in the world, rich or in poverty, in conflict or at peace.” In December, a Nevada museum paid SpaceX to launch a silver, plastic-like object in the shape of a diamond, the work of an artist who wanted “all of us to look up at the night sky with a renewed sense of wonder.” A Japanese company is testing satellites that can drop tiny objects from space into the atmosphere, simulating a meteor shower, and a Chinese organization wants to launch satellites coated in mirrors to beam light down to the city of Chengdu, part of an effort to perhaps someday replace streetlights.

These projects are usually met with some grumbling, mostly from astronomers, who argue that bright, shiny objects, even if short-lived, can be tremendously disruptive to ground-based telescopes trying to peer deep into space. Satellites with less whimsical intentions receive backlash, too; many astronomers hate SpaceX’s new satellites, launched last month, the first of nearly 12,000 that would someday provide internet services from space. They worry that the brightness of the satellites, combined with their sheer numbers, would effectively ruin astronomical study from the ground.

“It will get to the point, if plans continue, that there will be so many satellites in the night sky that at any given moment, it will be impossible to remove the human component of the view from the view itself,” Barentine said.

Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has said that some satellites will appear dimmer as they settle into higher orbits, and that engineers would consider measures to further reduce their reflectiveness.

Now imagine if satellite operators went in the opposite direction and leaned into the light. If they designed the satellites to not only reflect sunlight, but beam artificial light of their own for hours or longer. And they added some propulsion systems, so that the satellites would never fall out of the sky, or so that they could orbit together, as a constellation with a mythological story preprogrammed from the ground. And when the satellites came into view in the moments before sunset and sunrise, they looked like ordinary stars.

Such an effort would be expensive and technically difficult, and likely carried out by the very rich. Unlike national space agencies like NASA, space entrepreneurs like Musk and Jeff Bezos aren’t beholden to taxpayers. They have to receive approval from federal agencies that regulate space activity, but as long as their payloads don’t contain some kind of bomb, regulators are likely to grant their launch requests. “As more private companies become involved in spaceflight, the rules and the oversight change,” says Lisa Ruth Rand, a historian who studies orbital debris. “In the 1960s, we wouldn’t have launched a cherry-red Tesla into space.”

To some, the artificial stars might represent a triumphant display of human technology. “I can see the appeal of looking at artificial stars, because it’s sort of the recognition of the ingenuity of humanity,” Barentine said. “It’s a sign of modernity, a sign, in some respect, that we have arrived, that we humans can put things into the sky that rival the stars themselves.”

Perhaps a synthetic starscape would be seen as an extension of art, says Stuart Eves, an engineer who studies the removal of space debris, such as defunct satellites. Artists emulate the natural world in paints and canvas, while engineers might use microchips and metal. “People paint pictures of landscapes presumably because they find the landscape attractive,” Eves says. These exercises share the same instinct of mimicry, but in space, the final product would eliminate the original in an unprecedented way.

Or the effort may seem an earnest attempt at recovering the wonder of an unobscured sky, to provide people in light-polluted areas with an ancient connection to the universe. Rand lived in New York City during the great blackout in the summer of 2003, and she remembers walking through Times Square, completely darkened in the power outage. “I remember how odd it was to look up and see Mars,” Rand says.

It was a delight, but it didn’t make Rand mourn Midtown Manhattan’s tragic destruction of the evening sky. No one expects Mars to be visible in the middle of Times Square. “Obviously, there is something lost in not being able to see a starscape, but that’s just become a reality that’s accepted by modern urban dwellers,” Rand says. “Those who are not astronomy nerds like us probably don’t think about it as much.”

Sara Pritchard, a historian at Cornell who studies efforts to reduce light pollution, says a manufactured sky would deprive stargazers of what can make the natural world so mesmerizing: unpredictability. “You may really want to see a shooting star, but you could sit there all night and not see one,” Pritchard says. “There’s a certain human humility to doing that, because you realize you can’t necessarily control all phenomena of the natural world out there.” Pritchard suspects city residents yearning for the stars will be just fine without a sky brimming with shiny, fake objects.

For most of human history, the stars mattered more than modern-day light polluters can imagine. “It was unthinkable to ignore the stars,” Gene Tracy, a physics professor at William and Mary College, wrote in an essay in Aeon in 2015. “They were critical signposts, as prominent and useful as local hills, paths or wells. The gathering-up of stars into constellations imbued with mythological meaning allowed people to remember the sky; knowledge that might save their lives one night and guide them home.”

Today, beneath a blanket of satellites telling us what time it is and where to go, we no longer navigate our lives by the stars (although other animals still do). In one way, they have become purely decorative. A futuristic escalation—giving up on the real thing altogether and assembling a simulacrum—doesn’t seem so far-fetched.