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July 23, 2021
Exploiting space resources and littering it with satellite and other anthropogenic objects is endangering the ecosystem of space, which also damages the earth and its creatures below.
Outer space isn’t what most people would think of as an ecosystem. Its barren and frigid void isn’t exactly akin to the verdant canopies of a rainforest or to the iridescent shoals that swim among coral cities. But if we are to become better stewards of the increasingly frenzied band of orbital space above our atmosphere, a shift to thinking of it as an ecosystem — as part of an interconnected system of living things interacting with their physical environment — may be just what we need.
Last month, in the journal Nature Astronomy, a collective of 11 astrophysicists and space scientists proposed we do just that, citing the proliferation of anthropogenic space objects. Thousands of satellites currently orbit the Earth, with commercial internet providers such as SpaceX’s Starlink launching new ones at a dizzying pace. Based on proposals for projects in the future, the authors note, the number could reach more than a hundred thousand within the decade. Artificial satellites, long a vital part of the space ecosystem, have arguably become an invasive species.
The band of orbital space just above our atmosphere is becoming so densely populated with satellites that it may threaten the practice of astronomy. Whereas the main source of light interference used to be the cities below, it is now increasingly the satellites above. These artificial stars can be a billion times brighter than the objects astronomers hope to study, and they emit radio waves that can interfere with telescopes. By some estimates, around one in twenty images from the Hubble Telescope are affected by the streaks of passing satellites. By 2030, the authors say, a third of Hubble’s images could be impacted.
Yet the choice by the authors of the Nature Astronomy paper to call the orbital space around Earth an ecosystem reflects the fact that it’s not just astronomers who are affected by the recent infiltration of the night sky. Rather, the cluttering of orbital space is impacting the wellbeing of creatures both above the skies and below.
To begin with, there are the handful of astronauts at any given moment who call low-Earth orbit home — and the plants, worms, and tardigrades that have been their playthings on the International Space Station. Space junk created by the rare but inevitable collisions between satellites -- which can travel faster than bullet speed -- is becoming a threat to that life. Last year, a 5-millimeter hole was punctured in the International Space Station’s robotic arm by debris of unknown origin.
The cluttering of orbital space is impacting the wellbeing of creatures both above the skies and below.
But clutter in low-Earth orbit also threatens ways of life for entire communities of people here on the ground. The traditions and cosmologies of many Indigenous peoples, for example, are rooted in the movements of the stars. Polynesian sailors’ feats of navigation by starlight are unparalleled.
The Palikur people of the Amazon see constellations as boats driven by shamans that bring rain and seasonal fish. The recent deluge of light pollution in our night skies is more than a headache to these and other Indigenous peoples, whose cosmologies may wither if the numbers of satellites aren’t kept in check. New artificial mega constellations could mask those that have been relied on for millennia. (This issue may provide rare common ground between Indigenous peoples and professional astronomers, the latter of whom have historically been aligned with colonialism and courted controversy with the construction of new telescopes on sacred Indigenous lands.)
For many non-human animals, evidence suggests that a clear night sky might be a basic survival need. The hazy stripe of the Milky Way is used by dung beetles to navigate back to their burrows. Migratory birds, harbor seals, and some species of moths all use the movement of the stars as a compass too. Who knows how many other creatures might depend on a clear view of the night sky?
SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station
To protect the space ecosystem, we should treat it the way many aspire to treat our atmosphere and our oceans: as a global commons, a resource that lies beyond national, corporate, or individual ownership. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty took steps toward this ideal by recognizing that all nations have an equal interest in the exploration and use of outer space. Yet even that treaty establishes space as a resource humans can use for our own benefit. That’s like defining an ecosystem in terms of the natural capital it offers to humans, rather than recognizing the protection of habitats and biodiversity as an intrinsic good.
We shouldn’t see low Earth orbit as the next frontier of capitalist extraction.
More apt would be to emphasize not the potential benefits that space provides to humans but rather the potential threats that humans pose to orbital space. In this view, overuse of the global commons by any one actor imposes a shared expense on us all. In our management of Antarctica, for example, preservation goes hand in hand with human activity on the continent. In this light, we shouldn’t see low Earth orbit as the next frontier of capitalist extraction, but rather as an ecosystem to be protected — one that, like other ecosystems, has limits and tipping points beyond which there is no return.
Some groups have started to open up conversations and build initiatives to this effect. The authors of the Nature Astronomy paper, for example, propose a “space traffic footprint” akin to a carbon footprint. And in February, the International Astronomical Union launched the Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference.
The center, which will be co-hosted by the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab and the Square Kilometer Array Observatory, aims to act as a hub of information and advocacy, bringing together stakeholders such as astronomers, ecologists, and Indigenous peoples alike. While much remains to be done, the issue is one of perspective as much as policy. It will take a shared commitment to the value of a clear night sky, and collaboration across diverse communities, to preserve orbital space for generations to come.
Unlike other ecosystems, the near-barrenness of the band of space just beyond our atmosphere is precisely what makes it unique and valuable. Preserving this transparent window grants us all access to what lies beyond.
Thomas Lewton is a science journalist who writes about astrophysics and the environment.
A group of pro-peace German intellectuals published a letter asking the country not to deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine, but they're missing the point completely. Germany needs to reinvent itself in order to face today's challenges — and threats.
The war in Ukraine is not just being fought on the ground. The battle for dominance increasingly happens on the digital field, where a worldwide network of cyber-soldiers conduct attacks to disrupt Russia's war effort, from the outside and inside too.
Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.
Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.
Then there is Mariupol, under siege and symbol of Putin’s cruelty. In the largest city on the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million people, Ukrainians make up slightly less than half of the city's population, and Mariupol's second-largest national ethnicity is Russians. As of 2001, when the last census was conducted, 89.5% of the city's population identified Russian as their mother tongue.
Between 2018 and 2019, I spent several months in Mariupol. It is a rugged but beautiful city dotted with Soviet-era architecture, featuring wide avenues and hillside parks, and an extensive industrial zone stretching along the shoreline. There was a vibrant youth culture and art scene, with students developing projects to turn their city into a regional cultural center with an international photography festival.
There were also many offices of international NGOs and human rights organizations, a consequence of the fact that Mariupol was the last major city before entering the occupied zone of Donbas. Many natives of the contested regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had moved there, taking jobs in restaurants and hospitals. I had fond memories of the welcoming from locals who were quicker to smile than in some other parts of Ukraine. All of this is gone.
Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
According to the latest data from the local authorities, 80% of the port city has been destroyed by Russian bombs, artillery fire and missile attacks, with particularly egregious targeting of civilians, including a maternity hospital, a theater where more than 1,000 people had taken shelter and a school where some 400 others were hiding.
The official civilian death toll of Mariupol is estimated at more than 3,000. There are no language or ethnic-based statistics of the victims, but it’s likely the majority were Russian speakers.
So let’s be clear, Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a mother-tongue Russian speaker who’d made a successful acting and comedy career in Russian-language broadcasting, having extensively toured Russian cities for years.
Rescuers carry a person injured during a shelling by Russian troops of Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.
Yes, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, and a 2019 law aimed to ensure that it is used in public discourse, but no one has ever sought to abolish the Russian language in everyday life. In none of the cities that are now being bombed by the Russian army to supposedly liberate them has the Russian language been suppressed or have the Russian-speaking population been discriminated against.
Sociologist Mikhail Mishchenko explains that studies have found that the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t consider language a political issue. For reasons of history, culture and the similarities of the two languages, Ukraine is effectively a bilingual nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the population speaks both languages, Russian and Ukrainian,” Mishchenko explains. “Those who say they understand Russian poorly and have difficulty communicating in it are just over 4% percent. Approximately the same number of people say the same about Ukrainian.”
In general, there is no problem of communication and understanding. Often there will be conversations where one person speaks Ukrainian, and the other responds in Russian. Geographically, the Russian language is more dominant in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, and Ukrainian in the west.
Like most central Ukrainians I am perfectly bilingual: for me, Ukrainian and Russian are both native languages that I have used since childhood in Kyiv. My generation grew up on Russian rock, post-Soviet cinema, and translations of foreign literature into Russian. I communicate in Russian with my sister, and with my mother and daughter in Ukrainian. I write professionally in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and English, and can also speak Polish, French, and a bit Japanese. My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
At the same time, I am not Russian — nor British or Polish. I am Ukrainian. Ours is a nation with a long history and culture of its own, which has always included a multi-ethnic population: Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Greeks. We all, they all, have found our place on Ukrainian soil. We speak different languages, pray in different churches, we have different traditions, clothes, and cuisine.
My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
Like in other countries, these differences have been the source of conflict in our past. But it is who we are and will always be, and real progress has been made over the past three decades to embrace our multitudes. Our Jewish, Russian-speaking president is the most visible proof of that — and is in fact part of what our soldiers are fighting for.
Many in Moscow were convinced that Russian troops would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberating heroes by Russian speakers. Instead, young soldiers are forced to shoot at people who scream in their native language.
Starving people ina street of Kharkiv in 1933, during the famine
Putin has tried to rally the troops by warning that in Ukraine a “genocide” of ethnic Russians is being carried out by a government that must be “de-nazified.”
These are, of course, words with specific definitions that carry the full weight of history. The Ukrainian people know what genocide is not from books. In my hometown of Kyiv, German soldiers massacred Jews en masse. My grandfather survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the U.S. army. My great-grandmother, who died at the age of 95, survived the 1932-33 famine when the Red Army carried out the genocide of the Ukrainian middle class, and her sister disappeared in the camps of Siberia, convicted for defying rationing to try to feed her children during the famine.
On Tuesday, came a notable report of one of the latest civilian deaths in the besieged Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv: a 96-year-old had been killed when shelling hit his apartment building. The victim’s name was Boris Romanchenko; he had survived Buchenwald and two other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As President Zelensky noted: Hitler didn’t manage to kill him, but Putin did.
Genocide has returned to Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson to Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin had warned. But it is his own genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.