Tipping Point covers environmental justice stories about and, where possible, written by people in the communities experiencing the stark reality of our changing planet.
Every time you go outside on a clear night to gaze at the constellations strewn across the sky, you are continuing a human tradition that reaches deep into the shadows of our prehistory.
Across cultures and continents, our ancestors have looked to the night sky for purpose, connection, and stories that they imagined were painted across a star-studded canvas.
This ancient practice has now reached a critical inflection point as a new group of constellations, created by humans, is suddenly appearing in space. These “megaconstellations” consist of satellites, deployed by companies such as SpaceX, that range in number from a few hundred to several thousand. All told, Earth orbit may contain 100,000 operational satellites by 2030, roughly 25 times the existing population.
Indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by this interference with the night sky, which falls under a broader pattern of astrocolonialism. Light pollution is considered by some experts to be a form of cultural genocide against Indigenous peoples, whose traditions have already experienced erasure across countless other spheres.
“The concern I feel regarding megaconstellations is the same concern I feel when I see my country on fire or hear of my neighbors in the Torres Straits and their struggles with rising sea levels due to climate change,” Karlie Alinta Noon, a Gomeroi woman as well as an Indigenous research associate and PhD student in astronomy at the Australian National University, said in an email.
“The injection of thousands of metallic, highly reflective objects into our atmosphere is kindred to environmental degradation because it is changing our sky and we don’t yet know if we can reverse it,” she added.
Indigenous peoples have diverse views on megaconstellations, in part because these networks aim to provide reliable high-speed internet to rural areas—an advance that could help bridge a digital divide that burdens many Indigenous communities in particular. As a result, this issue has the unenviable quality of being both desperately urgent and dizzyingly complex: Decisions made about megaconstellations right now will profoundly affect the fate of the night sky, the flow of global information, and the future of Indigenous traditions.
“Indigenous ways of knowing are based upon connections to the land and sky,” Jennifer Howse, a member of the Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3 and an education specialist at the University of Calgary’s Rothney Astrophysical Observatory, said in an email.
“Elders share and teach spiritual and scientific traditional knowledge by using these connections to the natural world,” she continued. “Teaching the motion and meaning of stars, planets, and the Moon in the night sky is lost when the younger generation cannot see the stars. The glow of artificial light challenges and limits discovery, teaching, and our ability to find ourselves in the universe.”
In Cree cosmology, Star Woman fell through a hole in the sky called Pakone-Kisik that can still be seen as a cluster of bright points in space. A starry pattern in the southern skies forms Te Punga, the anchor of a sky canoe, for the Tainui Māori. In Inuit legend, three hunters are embodied by radiant lights in the Arctic sky called Ullaktut.
“It’s not even marginalization that’s an issue—it’s erasure.”
These constellations are far better known today as the Pleiades, the Southern Cross, and Orion’s Belt, which goes to show that astrocolonialism predates the space age by generations. Most internationally recognized constellations derive from Greek mythology, a standard pantheon that is resonant to many cultures, but that has also whitewashed the nomenclature of the skies.
“We have official constellations that are quite arbitrary, based on some discussion by essentially a few white guys a century ago, whereas we ignore the constellations of various Indigenous peoples even if we’re on those peoples’ lands,” Hilding Neilson, a Mi’kmaw person and an interdisciplinary astronomer at the University of Toronto, said in a call. “It’s not even marginalization that’s an issue—it’s erasure.”
“If you open a general astronomy textbook that is 500 pages, you might have one or two pages that say something on Indigenous astronomy, and it usually relates to it being ancient, historical, and gone,” he added. “It creates this snowball effect of dismissiveness and denial of these knowledges as scientific, as logical, and as an understanding of the natural world.”
Huge networks of orbital spacecraft are seen by some as a continuation of this erasure. Though skywatchers have spotted artificial objects since the dawn of the space age, the sheer glut of new satellites is dramatically changing the earthbound view of the universe experienced by innumerable generations. With little regulation to prevent the deployment of megaconstellations, a new takeover of space currently seems like a foregone conclusion, in spite of its huge implications for the night sky.
“We’re just running these cycles all over again,” Jeff Doctor, who is Cayuga from Six Nations of the Grand River Territory and an impact strategist for the Indigenous digital agency Animikii, said in a call. “Tech culture has to think in terms of history, place, lands, people—all of these kinds of things—and it just doesn’t.”
“It’s always very much in the now,” with an attitude of “‘this is cool, let’s just do it,’ instead of generational thinking,” he continued. “Just because we can do it, should we? How are my children, my children’s children, and the faces yet to come going to judge me because I did something that is creating the foundation or impact—whatever you want to call it—for things that are going to affect them?”
Aparna Venkatesan, a cosmologist at the University of San Francisco who has researched the many impacts of megaconstellations and partnered extensively with Indigenous communities, shares these concerns about short-term decisions with irreversible consequences, both on Earth and in space.
In a 2020 article in Nature Astronomy, Venkatesan and her colleagues warned that the rapid deployment of satellites stands to magnify “the wounding and long-term consequences” of imperial colonizing policies on Earth “on a cosmic scale.” To counter the acceleration of astrocolonialism, the article calls for a relational reframing of space as “an ancestral global commons that contains the heritage and future of humanity’s scientific and cultural practice.”
“We need a mindset shift,” Venkatesan said in a call. “That might take a generation, but we need to start working away at it, and we need to start where things are now. In a legal sense, it would be nice to view space as a shared commons that we are all respectfully dialoguing about, but we’re not there.”
Today, SpaceX occupies the center of the conversation about megaconstellations because the company has already deployed more than 1,700 satellites into low-Earth orbit as part of its Starlink network, which may eventually include some 30,000 spacecraft. OneWeb, a U.K.-based company, has launched about half of its constellation of 648 satellites, and Amazon is gearing up to launch its own network, Project Kuiper, containing more than 3,000 satellites. Meanwhile, China is developing a state-owned constellation called GW that may consist of some 13,000 satellites.
As soon as SpaceX’s satellite strings started streaking across the night sky, astronomers and astrophotographers complained about getting “Starlinked.” Megaconstellations are an emerging thorn in the side of ground-based astronomy, especially telescopes that rely on wide-field observations, such as the next-generation Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile.
“If we cannot access our skies, we cannot practice our culture.”
While astronomers are working on ways to digitally remove satellite trails from their images, megaconstellations are broadly brightening the night sky due to “a new skyglow effect,” created by diffuse light that scatters off of artificial space objects, according to a 2021 study published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters.
“This is going to erase the Milky Way for a lot of people,” said Venkatesan, who will be the keynote speaker at the International Dark-Sky Association’s Under One Sky Conference in November, where she will address the impact of megaconstellations on dark skies and marginalized communities, including Indigenous peoples.
“It’s going to make dark sky preserves and parks less relevant; it’s going to wash out meteor showers, and unlike streaks [of satellites], we can’t correct for it with software,” she added.
In addition to the implications for stargazers, satellite trails and skyglow will obscure the interstitial darkness of the night sky, which is important for Indigenous traditions. In Australia, for instance, constellations such as the Celestial Emu are formed from dark patches in space.
“As an Aboriginal woman, many of my connections to the sky are through what we call dark constellations,” said Noon. “They are shapes in the sky made out of the dark spaces, opposite to Western constellations that make shapes out of the starlight.”
“With the increase in light pollution due to these reflective objects in space, we can no longer access these dark constellations,” she added. “That means we can no longer monitor our cultural signals that tell us about the seasons or ceremony timing, or even access our knowledge, as much of it is stored in the sky. If we cannot access our skies, we cannot practice our culture.”
The companies launching these satellites obviously don’t want to be slowed down by new regulations or opposition, but some are open to feedback from dark sky advocates and Indigenous communities.
In an emailed statement, OneWeb said it is in regular contact with Alaska Native organizations, including the Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN), and is also consulting with astronomical organizations such as the Royal Astronomical Society and the American Astronomical Society.
“OneWeb’s mission is to connect the unconnected and our network will first connect Alaska and Canada where there are far too many Indigenous communities still unconnected,” the company said in the statement. “We’ve had fruitful discussions with AFN and many other Alaskan Indigenous groups about how our work could help improve broadband access, leading to stronger public health, safety and economic opportunities in the rural parts of Alaska. We share our progress and capabilities often, and we always listen to any concerns that are raised.”
Meanwhile, Starlink is currently running beta tests across many rural areas, a rollout that has been welcomed by some Indigenous peoples who have worked for years to bring high-speed broadband to their regions, such as the Pikangikum First Nation in Ontario, Canada, or the Hoh Tribe in western Washington state.
When the Hoh Tribe set up Starlink in September 2020, the community’s connection speeds jumped from a crawl of 0.3 and 0.7 megabits per second (Mbps) up to an average of between 45 and 65 Mbps—and above 100 Mbps in some locations—according to Melvinjohn Ashue, who is the tribe’s economic development director.
“Just throwing up the ground-mount really quick—taking it out of the box and putting it up—we had internet in five minutes,” Ashue said in a call. “It was amazing.”
All of a sudden, students in the same household could simultaneously access remote learning platforms. Streaming entertainment became instantly available, whereas Ashue said that community members used to start downloading games or movies on Monday hoping they might be finished in time for the weekend. The boost in connectivity also eased living situations for some of the tribe’s elders.
“One of the stories that I like to tell is that we had an elder that was excited once we connected his phone to it,” Ashue said. “He was calling people and saying, ‘I’m calling you from my couch. I don’t have to stand outside in the rain,’” because previously “in order for his cell phone to work, he had to go out toward the road.”
The meaningful changes that reliable high-speed internet can provide for Indigenous communities, which are especially clearcut during the Covid-19 pandemic, must be recognized alongside the outrage that skywatchers are expressing over the unprecedented light pollution from megaconstellations.
To that end, satellite operators and dark skies advocates have been meeting to forge partnerships and hash out strategies, including at Satellite Constellations (SATCON) workshops organized by the American Astronomical Society and NOIRLab, an astronomical organization funded by the National Science Foundation.
Some preliminary progress has emerged from these discussions: SpaceX has experimented with ‘DarkSat’ designs that reduce glare. Amazon has said it is consulting with astronomers about Project Kuiper’s reflectivity. In its emailed statement, OneWeb noted that its constellation orbits 745 miles above Earth, an altitude that is not visible to the naked eye, and that the company is “also undertaking brightness measurements” and “will be looking at those results to explore solutions as well.”
“We do take our responsibility seriously to safeguard space as a natural resource and would welcome discussions from communities that have concerns,” according to OneWeb’s statement.
(SpaceX and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.)
The latest SATCON presented findings in July, and its subsequent conclusions will be presented at a conference called “Dark and Quiet Skies for Science and Society,” organized by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, the International Astronomical Union, and the government of Spain, which is being held virtually this week.
One working group, co-led by Venkatesan and James Lowenthal, an astronomer at Smith College, aimed to amplify the broad range of constituencies beyond professional astronomy that are impacted by megaconstellations including Indigenous perspectives. Among its speakers was Juan-Carlos Chavez, Yaqui of the Sonora Desert and affiliate research scientist at Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, who emphasized the diversity and autonomy of Indigenous communities.
“Each tribe is sovereign and they have the right to self-determine, which means they decide what their community will do,” Chavez said in a call.
“Broadband is critical,” he continued. “The pandemic has highlighted the acute need for it in telehealth, education, and transportation.”
But Chavez said in conversations around internet coverage and regulations of space, Indigenous peoples have been left out: “The issue is—and this is not my problem to solve—we were not at the table when the resource was handed out. That is really the challenge.”
To confront this challenge, Indigenous peoples must be at the center of discussions, and ultimately legal actions, about developments that so profoundly affect them. One possible model to follow, to that end, might be New Zealand’s Te Urewera Act 2014, which merges common law and Māori cosmology by conferring personhood to a national park.
Similar Indigneous-based legal frameworks may “provide inspiration and ideas for alternative models for space-based governance,” according to a 2018 study published in the journal New Space co-authored by Eytan Tepper, a research coordinator and lecturer in space governance at Laval University.
“There are many issues and problems in the current governmental system,” Tepper, who is also a visiting scholar at Indiana University and inaugural director of its Space Governance Lab, said in a call.
Many of these dilemmas stem from what he called a “paralyzed” United Nations that still relies on space treaties forged during the Cold War and do not reflect that “we are in a different world.”
“I was trying to find other ways that we can develop space governance because the technology and engineers are not stopping, especially now, with commercial actors taking a leading role,” Tepper added, referring to the motivation for the research, which was co-authored by Christopher Whitehead, a lecturer in law at the Auckland University of Technology. “Now there is more interest in how we can take Indigenous perspectives to outer space governance.”
“At least have consistency about what consultation means.”
Likewise, Neilson urged the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to be much more inclusive of Indigenous communities and worldviews regarding space issues in a recent paper he co-authored with Elena Ćirković, a researcher at the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science.
The authors argue that satellite constellations are “a form of colonization” and that the CSA “has an obligation to consult with Indigenous communities and Indigenous-led organizations with respect to the legalities of how satellites that impact communities operate,” according to the paper, published this summer on the preprint server arXiv.
“We talk about treaties as being around land claims,” Neilson said, “but at what height does the treaty end and the United Nations takes over—or nothing takes over? There’s an ethical issue for consultation and consideration that’s necessary with Indigenous communities, as to what they want and what impacts their land rights.”
It is also essential that Indigenous communities be engaged early and often on space issues and their consequences, as opposed to relying on an old and insulting pattern of seeking superficial sign-offs after decisions have already effectively been made.
“Have it be a meaningful consultation, because coming in to meet with the tribe and checking that box off shouldn’t be considered consultation,” Ashue said. “At least have consistency about what consultation means.”
Finding ways to move forward on space-related technologies will require companies, governments, and astronomical institutions to build respectful partnerships with Indigenous peoples, an outcome that ultimately rests on an optimistic assumption that meaningful trust is achievable after centuries of atrocities and desecrations.
“It’s very nuanced, so I think we need to take it slow,” Venkatesan said. “Both astronomers and industry shouldn’t co-opt these marginalized perspectives for the bottom line that they want to see happen.”
As an advocate for Indigenous data sovereignty, Doctor has wrestled with the intricacies of megaconstellations and their consequences for Indigenous spaces. While the digital divide deserves attention, he also warns of the internet’s dark side: its invasion of privacy rights, the creep of surveillance capitalism, the risks of online harassment and trafficking, and the prospect of exchanging one corporate monopoly for another.
“Digital colonialism is fucking dangerous, and we’re not even talking about that,” Doctor said.
“The trick is: how can we balance this need for fighting colonization with the tools that it is using to oppress us?”
The utopian vision of global satellite broadband extends opportunities to Indigenous peoples who want them, but it glosses over the marginalization of traditions that have been observed for countless generations. Moreover, paternalistic rhetoric often frames Indigenous communities as what Doctor calls “a branding exercise” in corporate social responsibility.
“This notion that providing access, and assuming everybody will have access, as good corporate internet citizens also detracts from Indigenous folks’ ability to live in their traditional ways: living on the land, not having to depend on the internet, not having to depend on neoliberal economies, and not having to have a job,” he said.
“It raises an interesting conundrum where there’s already this baseline assumption that everyone must have a job, be a good corporate citizen, and participate,” Doctor continued. “If you don’t do that, you’re now a deviant or an other, which is the classic colonial narrative all the way down to the fur trade.”
Beyond the unpredictable reverberations of global satellite broadband, there should be some healthy skepticism about the ability of these companies to actually deliver in the first place. Satellite megaconstellations may well extend affordable internet connectivity to the world, but that future is not guaranteed.
Indeed, while the Hoh Tribe is using Starlink for the moment, Ashue said that his community is working to secure other internet sources to avoid reliance on any one link.
“We’re still trying to get terrestrial connections,” he said, “but [Starlink] is, right now, the best option for us.”
The unknown ripple effects of megaconstellations are at odds with the frenzied pace at which these satellites are already being launched, a reality that may ultimately work to the advantage of satellite internet companies.
“There is a race here that falls within a capitalist framework where if you have satellites up there first, you get to control the market, so putting caps on the market is very important here as well,” Neilson said. “While satellite internet is going to be valuable for some communities, it’s also not clear that it’s actually going to be affordable for these communities.”
Polluting outer space in exchange for a mirage of affordable broadband would be a truly tragic devil’s bargain. But for some, even the most idealistic promises of worldwide internet access would not be worth the loss of dark nightscapes and the Indigenous traditions that depend on them.
“The potential benefits of this new infrastructure do not outweigh the negatives,” Noon said. “Further, no permission was given for our skies to be taken. The Indigenous people of Australia own the sky as much as these companies, and yet their desires were not considered.”
“We already had the infrastructure to improve the internet in remote locations,” she noted. “We didn’t have to destroy the skies to do it. There could have been room for compromise but I don’t think this situation is about doing what’s right or what’s best: it’s a lands race.”
At a moment when it is common to hear Indigenous land acknowledgements at public events, it is past time to extend those sentiments skyward, to this new form of astrocolonialism embodied by megaconstellations.
For Chavez, who was profoundly shaped by his grandfather’s immense knowledge of the stars, the ominous brightening of the night sky is especially personal. Growing up, he recalls his peers dismissing his grandfather’s talents as mysticism or outright fabrication, leaving him with a sense of alienation and self-doubt.
“It made me truly feel like I didn’t belong here [in the U.S.], and that my ways were lies and not truths, so that hurt for many years,” Chavez said. “But I came to realize that my grandfather, and our traditional ways, were so sophisticated that Western science didn’t understand it. We could use different terms, but my grandfather was essentially a physicist. He could look at the stars, and he could guide us in the desert at night to collect food.”
“The luminosity [from artificial light] breaks this one-way channel that we have with the stars and changes our relationship with the stars,” he concluded. “While I may have that knowledge, what about the next generation, when they see all of these different lights in between this sacred knowledge that we have known since time immemorial? We will be assimilated even more, and we will lose this one-way relationship with Father Sky. That is a very difficult thing to accept.”