Editorial: Elon Musk’s Starlink connects the planet. It also clutters the heavens.

Gaze up at the right time and you might see what looks like a train of stars streaking across a dark sky.

The phenomenon is neither aliens nor a top-secret military project. The lights are commercial satellites that provide broadband internet service. They are part of growing constellations of such craft in low Earth orbit — within 1,200 miles from Earth.

The capability brings the internet to the most austere places in the world — including Ukraine’s trenches — but the proliferation of thousands of these satellites creates other problems, like more space junk and obstructed views of the night sky. The technology offers vast benefits, and both scientists and policymakers must continue to monitor and mitigate its impacts. The increasing presence of these satellites raises questions about light pollution and the ability for all to see the heavens. Who owns the night sky?

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In September, San Antonio-area residents saw and photographed a string of satellites flying over South Texas. Those were SpaceX Starlink satellites, and Elon Musk’s company is just one of several entities worldwide competing to provide better connectivity from space.

Starlink’s network of nearly 4,000 craft flies 342 miles above Earth. That’s about 90 miles above the International Space Station and much closer than other communication satellites that orbit 22,000 miles away. The satellites closer to Earth have significantly less latency — the point to point travel time for data — than those farther out. Starlink claims it’s 30 times faster than traditional satellite internet.

SpaceX launched another batch of 21 starlinks into space on Monday. They’re the latest additions to the network that could have 42,000 satellites someday. That’s seven times more than the total number of operational satellites currently in orbit.

“In one sense, bringing the internet to the world and in unreachable areas is incredibly exciting. It’s kind of leveling the playing field and getting closer to digital equity,” said Chris Packham, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “On the other side, if we don’t do it well — if we don’t do it in a controlled sense — we will end up with a significant amount of light pollution.”

SpaceX is using darker materials and coatings, as well as maneuvering, to minimize the sun’s reflection off the craft and solar panels.

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Scientists worldwide are researching and advocating ways to manage the growing “low Earth orbit economy” while also preserving the night sky.

Astronomers are lobbying the United Nations for international guidelines and SpaceX is collaborating with the National Science Foundation.

Packham wonders if other countries and companies will be as cooperative and amenable to international agreements? China, for instance, recently announced a plan to lob 13,000 satellites to monitor and compete with Starlink.

Preserving the night sky is critical for astronomers, and there’s the unspoiled aspect of the heavens that humans must steward.

“Also, the more stuff that’s out there, the more chance there is of collisions, and that leads to space junk,” Packham said. “And we want to maintain as pristine an area out in space, just like we wouldn’t want to litter beautiful parts of the ground in Texas or beyond.”

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Current Starlink satellites weigh nearly 600 pounds, and second-generation versions will weigh almost 2,800 pounds. Both are designed to disintegrate, or “demise,” when they de-orbit after their lifespans, but the long-term impacts of the pollution are unknown.

The second-generation craft are projected to fly to space aboard the Starship that’s being developed at the SpaceX facility near Boca Chica beach outside Brownsville.

Satellites in low Earth orbit interfere both with optical and radio astronomy. Packham said the craft transmit radio waves that impact data measurements from the more distant stars and galaxies as well as obstruct long-exposure imaging

Scientists have ways to remove such interference, but it’s not optimal, “because you’re trying to correct the data after that kind of degradation created by the stuff that’s streaking across.”

Ultimately, the benefits of many satellites in low Earth orbit can be good for humanity, but we must be responsible stewards of such technology. The time to save the night sky for our children’s children is now.