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.
Read: The age of fake shooting stars is upon us
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.