Add environmental to Starlink's list of possible hazards

Do not worry solely about Starlink taking sides in wars; scientists warn of environmental hazards.

Camping along the California coast has allowed me to witness the beauty as Starlink burns fuel to put all those satellites in orbit. I did not know they were intended to vaporize on reentry only five years later. Each launch I've seen has been a dozen or more satellites. It is very pretty! Scientists are worried about the environmental impacts all the chemicals burning up in the ozone layer have.

Now some scientists warn that the steady parade of smaller low-Earth orbit satellites constantly burning up in orbit could release chemicals that could undermine the progress we've made repairing the ozone layer. Researchers at the University of Southern California's Department of Astronautical Engineering issued a press statement explaining the challenges in greater detail (study here):

"Aluminum oxides spark chemical reactions that destroy stratospheric ozone, which protects Earth from harmful UV radiation. The oxides don't react chemically with ozone molecules, instead triggering destructive reactions between ozone and chlorine that deplete the ozone layer. Because aluminum oxides are not consumed by these chemical reactions, they can continue to destroy molecule after molecule of ozone for decades as they drift down through the stratosphere."

Much like concerns about space garbage, regulators generally have been so innovation cooed that they haven't thought much about this. Starlink alone is slated to launch 42,000 low Earth orbit satellites, and other companies like Amazon are expected to soon join the parade. All of these cheaper, smaller satellites have less than a five year life span, so they'll be consistently falling back to Earth.


Tech Dirt reminds us that satellite-based internet is not the way to go. While it has its uses, it is good that the US government is funding better paths forward.

You might recall that the Trump administration tried to give Musk's Starlink nearly a billion dollars in subsidies in exchange for delivering Starlink to some traffic medians and airport parking lots. The Biden FCC backtracked on a large chunk of those awards, noting that if taxpayers are going to fund broadband expansion, they should prioritize non-capacity constrained, affordable fiber access as much as possible.

Telecom experts say truly "bridging the digital divide" mostly involves deploying fiber as deeply into rural America as is practical, then filling in the remaining gaps with 5G and fixed wireless. Increasingly that's involving communities building their own open access fiber networks to spur competition, whether a municipal network, cooperative, public-private partnership, or extension of the city's electrical utility.Services like Starlink certainly do play a niche role in this quest to fill in whatever access gaps remain (especially during emergencies or military campaigns), but it's a growing question whether the growing list of trade offs are going to be worth it.

SpaceX loses $900m Starlink subsidy
Elon Musk secretly ordered Starlink engineers to disrupt Ukraine counter-attack on Russian fleet
Russians are using Starlink in their war on Ukraine