2022 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: Space Pollution
NEIL TYSON (Frederick P. Rose Director, Hayden Planetarium): Hello, everyone. In this the is it the 22nd time that we have held the Isaac Asimov panel debate and it's a success. Every year we get such good guests. And I just a little bit of back story here When Isaac Asimov died, we wanted to find a way to remember him at the Museum. Why? Because he's a native to New York City.
He's written a zillion books. We counted. And much of the science that went into those books was researched at the library of the American Museum of Natural History. So he wasn't just a casual tourist visitor. He fully used the resources that we were able to supply. And we got together with his widow, Janet Asimov, now deceased by several years, and his daughter, Robyn Asimov.
And they gathered friends and created a small endowment to sustain this over the years to keep the memory of Isaac Asimov's curiosity, cosmic curiosity alive, and to stimulate that kind of curiosity in others. And what better way to do that than to get a topic about which not many people agree and just kind of have it out. So, no, it's not a formal debate with point counterpoint.
It's a conversation that in a way, you're going to eavesdrop on. All right. I have six experts in the field of space pollution and in fact, one person on the panel represents the satellite industry who then presumably doesn't think that way about this topic. We will dip more into that as we go deeper. This event is- What we found is once we blew through the- the controversial science topics, you know, like, is there life?
Where is the life and what's it made of? And then we realized that there's so many other topics that reach- that have science-based, but reach into our culture. And so this topic is one of them because it affects security space, civilian space, tourism space, any other business need that might be seen, plus it affects astronomers. And so,I just want to lead off with a quick panel here.
You might remember a few years ago, there was a movie called Gravity starring two- leading man leading woman, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The movie really should have been called Zero Gravity because almost the entire film took place in Zero G. But what was significant about it is it portrayed a plausible, you know, cinematically plausible consequence of satellites being destroyed in orbit and having those fragments destroy other satellites.
And I saw this when it was first released in IMAX, and it was just terrifying. Terrifying because every fragment that comes off of a destroyed satellite becomes a projectile Putting other satellites at risk. And so, there's a paper- there are many papers, but one published recently that wants to think about this problem. OK, this is a- just a video from the NASA Orbital Debris Office.
What you see here is this is from a few years ago, actually, this number is probably manifold greater, but this is a tracking of debris particles in orbit around the Earth. The flurry close to Earth's surface, that's the near-Earth orbit. And you come out to this ring, which is geosynchronous orbit, and we just come in and just look at this.
It's like, oh, my gosh. And I was concluding that the reason why we actually haven't been visited by aliens is so they just saw what a trash heap the space was around our planet and they didn't want to get injured. So, they just went on to find some other planet. But these are actual particles of space debris that are tracked.
And in this paper here, The case for space environmentalism, this is kind of what we're going to talk about today. And we have several people, coauthors on this paper Meredith Rawls and Moriba Jah are on this panel this evening. And what- In this paper you will find this plot and this plot, the way these plots work is the top line, which is black, is the sum of all the lines below it.
All right. And so the the- the- the blue line are active satellites rapidly increasing just in the last couple of years. The red line are dead satellites. All right. And then the green is like leftovers, like rocket boosters and other bits and pieces that were no longer needed after the- after the satellite was deployed. Then you have debris outnumbering it all in terms of number of tracked objects.
You sum all of that, you have something rising through 30,000 objects in the sky. Notice the steep jump there. When the Chinese did a weapons test, they took out one of their satellites. It greatly- They smashed one of their satellites to smithereens, greatly increased the debris. And there was another one. There was a collision between two satellites. There's another abrupt jump.
So, we're going to talk about all of this. By the way, 60 years ago, there was like three satellites or whatever the number was. Sputnik was 1957. And so to go from a few 60 years ago to tens of thousands is just scary. I mean, maybe it's great because we're becoming spacefaring, but really, it's kind of scary when you think about it.
And let's go straight in here. So, I want to just go. You will meet each panelist as I address them with various comments. So, let's first go to Moriba Jah. Moriba, welcome to the Asimov panel. You are on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin in the aerospace engineering department. And you have special interest in space debris and that's you know, is that on your business card? Debris? It sounds like, you know...
MORIBA JAH (Associate Professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, University of Texas at Austin): Actually, it's- It's space garbage man. That's what's on my bus- Yeah, exactly.
TYSON: That's what you are. OK, I'm sorry. Yeah, that that's even less flattering. OK, Mr. Garbage Man in space. But you have special interest in that. And because of that special interest you have certain other- you wear other hats related to space security and other interesting parties. So I'm just curious, you have just a comment to begin us with based on your background.
JAH: I mean, look,, we started by launching satellites in 1957 with Sputnik and we currently track 50,000 things ranging in size from a cell phone to the Space Station, out of which only 5,000 work and everything else is garbage. So sounds like we have a problem.
TYSON: Houston, we have- No. Earth, we have a problem. Yes. So could you just start us off? Could you distinguish for us between low Earth orbit, middle Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit--LEO, MEO, and GEO. That sounds like triplets. So what is it? Why do they matter in terms- in the conversations we're having?
JAH: Yeah. So look, we don't want to just launch satellites randomly in space. We we have specific purposes for these things. And so things in low Earth orbit, mostly things like global Internet with the Starlink satellites, OneWeb, you know, that sort of stuff, and Earth observation satellites that are useful for weather monitoring and climate change monitoring and these sorts of things.
Mid Earth orbit- So, LEO goes all the way up to about 1,200 kilometers of altitude. Mid Earth orbit—satellite takes about 12 hours to go around once in its orbit. That's a place where we have global navigation satellite systems like global positioning system, that sort of thing, Things that we use on our cellphones..
JAH: Yeah, GPS. Exactly right. You know, the blue dots on the cell phone that tell us where we're located and that sort of thing. And then GEO, these are things that take about 24 hours, which kind of coincides with what people associate with a day. That's where we have communication satellites, and that's about 36,000 kilometers of altitude.
TYSON: OK, so that's- so when we talk about debris, we might have to be specific about what zone the debris resides in.
JAH: That's right, the zip code.
TYSON: Yeah, that's fair. OK. OK, let me go to Connie Walker. Connie, you're an astronomer with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. Very well known to my entire community. And you are a key person in their research-based education, the Science Education Department. But that's not why we have you here. We have you here because you are a manic activist.
Can I use the word manic? Is that allowed? Manic activist with- A manic activist with the International Dark Sky Association. Now, I have just to tell you how- how activist they are. When we opened the new Rose Center for Earth and Space in Manhattan in the year 2000, replacing the previous planetarium, we had these tiny little lights embedded in the sidewalk just to give the sidewalk a little bit a vibrancy.
I got a letter a week later from the head of the Dark Sky Association. "Why do you have lights pointing straight up? You have to set a good example." And like, I'm in the middle of Manhattan. These were like, one-watt light bulbs. But just as an example of the sort of the enthusiasm with which- the aggression with which they want to fight any light that's going the wrong direction.
So, tell me just a little more about yourself and what you see your role is in this panel.
CONNIE WALKER (Scientist, NSF’s NOIRLab): Well, until a few years ago, you're absolutely correct, my attention was facing downward. Light pollution that originated from the ground. And I was very- pretty active in that. I'm right now on my second round of being on the IDA board, but with the launch of SpaceX's, 60 Starlink satellites, I actually took an active role with five of the other- four the other people on this panel to do about four different workshops, most of them focusing on satellite constellations.
And as a result, we now have an IAU center that I'm part of the management team for the protection of the dark and quiet skies from satellite constellation interference. If you can say that ten times fast you win a prize.
TYSON: IAU, the- the International Astronomical Union. It's not a union like a labor union. It's the- it's the union of the international astronomers. And so if anyone were to take this on, it would be them because it's an international based organization.
WALKER: May I make one correction if it's all right? We're no longer NOAO. We're no longer the National Optical Astronomy Observatory. We are now NOIRLab, even better, right?
WALKER: NSF's NOIRLab.
TYSON: That's French for dark or black. Is that right?
WALKER: Yeah. It's like it's like cafe noir, right? Film noir, right. No. No, it's-
TYSON: OK. But that happened without me looking, so thanks for correcting me on that.
WALKER: I'd get dinged later if I didn't say that.
TYSON: So, we'll get back to you. We'll get back to you to try to distinguish what we really mean by light pollution, surface emanating and satellite pollution that might also contribute light pollution to our problems. Let's go on to Meredith Rawls. Meredith, we got you here?
MEREDITH RAWLS (Research Scientist, Vera C. Rubin Observatory Data Management): Hello.
TYSON: Yeah. Hey, you're a staff scientist with the Vera Rubin Observatory and the Legacy Survey for Space and Time, LSST, which is how it was known until- only how it was known until Vera Rubin, who had passed away, one of the more distinguished among us in our field and is a brilliant naming opportunity. And we all were totally behind that That observatory, I didn't bring anyone in- I could have gotten people from a hundred different observatories.
I got you for this panel because that telescope is not your ordinary telescope. Please describe what it does and how it may be uniquely susceptible to this problem.
RAWLS: Yeah, absolutely. So, I'm a research scientist at the University of Washington, but I work for Vera Rubin Observatory, which is being built in Chile right now. Well, one thing that's special about it is it's actually still under construction. So, we don't have like pictures from it yet. But in less than two years, we're going to turn this thing on and start taking a high-resolution movie of the entire southern sky for a decade.
So, it's not that kind of normal telescope where astronomers can write a proposal and say, hey, I'd love to look at my favorite galaxy or favorite stars. Please do it for an hour next week, please. None of that. Instead, we have a scheduler algorithm that will try to optimize, which is an impossible problem, but will do its best to optimize scanning the entire southern sky so that we can kind of revisit every area, find things that have changed and move and really image some faint structures that you wouldn't be able to see otherwise. It's really exciting.
TYSON: Yeah. So- so, the fact that you're getting a movie, that means you'd be able to find asteroids that are moving. Correct? It's not just a single snapshot of whatever someone was looking up and finding that night. You can track things. So if I'm trying to find an asteroid that could put Earth in harm's way and all you're detecting are satellite trails, this could be a data- a data-sifting problem. That's not yet solved. Is that correct?
RAWLS: That's exactly right. Yes. That's one of my my deepest concerns. I don't do solar system science. It's not my background so much, but I have tons of colleagues who are so excited to use Rubin Observatory for finding asteroids, not just potential killer asteroids, but all kinds of cool rocks in the solar system and characterizing them, but also ones that might intersect our orbit.
And if instead we're just seeing a whole bunch of satellite streaks, we won't be able to to find them or figure out their orbits and know in advance what's going on.
TYSON: So it's a form of pollution in a sense. Yeah, it's fair to say that. Yeah. Yeah. OK. All right. Let's keep going here. Getting everybody on line here. We have Dr. Aparna Venkatasan. I think I said that right. Aparna, come on on. Where are you? There you go. Yeah. Hello. Welcome to the Asimov panel.
And I have on your bio you're a cosmologist, which got you here and professor in the Department of Physics, Astronomy, University of San Francisco. And that's not why we have you here, not because you're professor and you're a cosmologist, but you have taken a special professional interest in what voice Indigenous peoples have or should have in discussions that relate to the night sky and decisions the world makes about what we're putting in the night sky.
So could you tell us a little bit more about that and- and what you plan- how you plan to plug in to this moving frontier, this wild west of space. Space debris.
APARNA VENKATESAN (Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of San Francisco): Thank you very much, Neil. And I'm- I'm very grateful to be here today. And I also am grateful for this group of people, many of whom I'm already working with. It has really been a career privilege. So, thank you. I just want to briefly acknowledge those whose ancestral homelands I live and work on, the Coast Miwok and Ohlone of Northern California and the traditional custodians of the land, water and skies where each of you are.
So, I'm sure we'll get to expound on some of these ideas over the course of this event. And speaking for myself, I am not indigenous to this part of the world. I just share my own perspective and experience from years of working with global Indigenous communities.
I think so much is done with common shared resources in the name of the common good, but in a way that doesn't invite all stakeholders to the table. And I think that's particularly important right now because we're really at an existential crossroads, not just for the planet but also for space. There are so many competing interests and so many competing concerns, and I'm sure we'll get to amplify many of the points.
But I want to start out with something that we all know, which is we are ancient, either through the exciting Journey our atoms have had for 14 billion years and through our millennia-old relationship with the sky. So, I view the spectrum of human knowledge to contain modern astronomy as well as Indigenous knowledge. It's not an either-or, but a yes-and. It's part of the integrative spectrum of being human and how all of us, really, have related to the sky over the millennia.
TYSON: So, with satellites, wouldn't it just give me more stuff to relate to in the sky? We have satellites in the sky. I mean, I'm being a little bit of a devil's advocate there, but if it's more stuff in the sky, the sky is busy now, the way the ocean was busy, the way the land is busy. So why should the sky be held any different in that respect, indigenously?
VENKATESAN: Yeah. Well, I'll mention a few key aspects that are cornerstones of Indigenous knowledge—again, from what I've listened to and learned from my Indigenous colleagues and collaborators—one of which is sustainability. Is the way we are approaching space sustainable? Can we get beyond the next few years, no matter how orthogonal the concerns, whether we related to it personally or culturally or scientifically, or through military commercial ventures?
We all want to have access and operate for decades and centuries, not mere years. So, I'll mention the sustainability as well as interdisciplinary collaboration and scientific innovation rooted in cultural identity. That's something academe is not so good at, and that's something that we can learn from indigenous communities.
TYSON: What's interesting to me is this this notion of sustainability, which is sort of the buzzword of recent years, is actually a quite old concept with- in Indigenous ways. So, we're just sort of rediscovering the value of that. Let me go on. Yeah, let me go right up to Therese Jones. Therese, are you- Therese Jones. There you go.
Thank you. Hey, so I've got your resume here. Senior Director of Policy, the Satellite Industry Association. Ooooh. Are you ready for us? Are you- Are you ready? So, and you- you do the all the things you would expect a representative organization to do for the industry. You work on regulatory, legislative, space, sustainability, of course, cybersecurity.
The list goes on and on and on. So, as I looked on your résumé, your background is in astrophysics. Is that correct?
THERESE JONES (Senior Director of Policy for the Satellite Industry Association): It is indeed.
TYSON: OK, so what happened where you crossed over?
JONES: Well, I was looking for viable jobs and the space industry is rapidly growing and a lot of the skills that are utilized in astrophysics are also great for the space industry.
TYSON: OK. And so, do you have a soft spot for all the crying astronomers that are out there, knowing that the- the Satellite Industry Association has, you know, quarterly reports annually, annual reports as their bottom line relative to just what anyone feels like they want the sky to be, either scientifically or indigenously.
JONES: I certainly do have a soft spot for astronomy, and I think we need to work together to minimize the impact of satellites on astronomy. I mean, we're in a really exciting time in the space industry, rapid growth. Since I started this job a little over four years ago, the number of satellites in orbit has almost tripled. To about 5,000.
And there are proposals for tens of thousands of satellites to be launched over the next decade. So massive growth.
TYSON: Yeah, I want to get back to you on that very point, because I was just wondering how many satellites is enough? But I'll get back to you. I'll get back to you on that. Last and certainly not least among us on this panel of six is Colonel Scott Brodeur. Colonel, welcome to the Asimov panel. And you are with the U.S. Space Force, formerly with the U.S. Air Force.
You're a colonel. Actually, scheduled to retire in October. So, you become a regular civilian at that point. But I'm looking at your resume. It's got all the key words in it. It's like if there was like security space, bingo, you get it like, OK, Joint Space Operations Center, Combined Space Operations, National Space Defense, mission partner intelligence. It's all there.
And so please tell us what- what is the environment of space today that it wasn't back when- back in the old days, two years ago before we had a space force.
COL. SCOTT BRODEUR (Director, National Space Defense Center and Director of Operations, Joint Task Force Space Defense, United States Space Command): Yeah, sure. The most interesting part that I've seen, at least throughout my career, is the transition from a peaceful, benign environment to a contested environment from our adversaries. So looking at it through a military lens, we've seen an increased amount of counter-space capabilities that ultimately are debris-causing and kinetic. And so, as everyone's aware of the Vice President's commitment to not doing debris causing anti-satellite tests, that's a step in the right direction, because we've seen, as you mentioned in the opening charts, the kinetic test from China back in 2007.
You know, they weren't they weren't quite a counter-space power at that point. You could almost forgive them, as hard as that is to say, for doing that. But what happened in November with the Russian test was pretty inexcusable. It was clearly a message, an irresponsible message. But those type of events have to stop. And we just can't- we can't have that type of debris on orbit because as you know, believe it or not, the space debris and space sustainability are just as important to our everyday way of life as it is to our national security.
So, we keep- we keep an eye on those objects. And as you know, many of those things are not trackable. And so, we talk a lot about what we think is in space. That's just what we can track. And so, there's a lot of- exponentially more things that we aren't tracking as easily or as frequently or at all.
And so those things are affecting all of those orbital regimes that Dr. Jah talked about.
TYSON: What- Can you distinguish for us, the difference between you protecting, you know, military conceived satellites, the military version of the GPS plus spy satellites that sort of thing. But we have satellites that represent a huge- a huge fraction of our business sector that enables them, empowers them to do their work.
So, do you see the Space Force as also protecting assets, as a separate thing from just checking to see if adversaries are poking us? I mean, how do you view the entire space empire? Because it's all completely intermingled up there.
BRODEUR: Dr. Tyson, that's pretty much my current role at the National Space Defense Center now is identifying what capabilities that we would consider high value. Those are commercial capabilities. Those are allied space capabilities. Those are Department of Defense, Intelligence, community, national reconnaissance. Those are all- all of our capabilities that we would look to, to protect and defend. And most, you know, our protection and defense capability is underpinned by understanding what's going on in the domain.
And so having space domain awareness and seeing and tracking and understanding what's up there and what its intent is, is of the utmost importance. When we talk through the problem set of debris and just more things on orbit it complicates those solutions. It complicates our ability to maintain awareness of what's going on. And that's not just for military purposes.
That's also for safety of flight. And there's humans in space. And we want to make sure that we're not doing things and not losing awareness of the most critical conjunctions that are exacerbated by debris.
TYSON: And if- if this whole tourist thing kicks off, then it'll be many more humans in space than even that make the news right now. It would just be a natural thing people do for their vacation. And so it's a whole other frontier. Of course, normally when people think of an explosion, they think of a very carefully conceived explosive device, some kind of a bomb—nuclear, chemical, whatever.
When you describe a kinetic attack on a satellite, could you just- could you say exactly what that is relative to how we might be thinking of a detonation?
BRODEUR: Yeah, sure. So, when we had the recent direct descent anti-satellite launch between, it was the Russian launch versus one of their own satellites, Kosmos 1408. That's- that is just a- that is a- two objects just colliding with one another. So, there doesn't have to be an explosion, in your words, to actually create the effect. It's just it's kinetically bringing two objects together that creates a mass of debris in the trajectory of that kinetic weapon and the trajectory of the object as it was in its orbital path.
And so, for years, there will be debris along that path of travel. And so, depending on where these collisions happen, like the Iridium-Kosmos event that you mentioned, that was in 2009 or even FengYun and the Chinese ASAT, those two events created huge debris patterns within their orbital paths that will affect the other satellites and capabilities in the vicinity for years and years to come.
The lower- the lower you are in altitude, the more apt the debris will be to burn into the atmosphere. But those events that happen at higher altitudes tend to remain on orbit for for decades.
TYSON: Decades. Moriba, in the- in the image we saw at the beginning in one of the slides I had, we saw all of this debris, like, buzzing right close to the Earth. Why doesn't all that- if that's the lowest in the orbital space it has, it seems that would be most susceptible to atmospheric drag. Why doesn't all that drop out more quickly than it does?
JAH: Yeah. So- so look, this whole idea of atmospheric drag, like it's a real thing, but for objects that are, I don't know, higher than like 800 or so kilometers of altitude, just like Colonel Brodeur said, it's going to take, you know, decades, if not centuries. And if things are above 1200 kilometers, I mean, for all intents and purposes, that stuff is up there kind of like forever.
So, there's a lot of stuff that just never comes back. And then things in LEO do come back. But yeah, I mean, it's very altitude dependent. The higher it is, the longer is going to take for it to come down. But at the same time, you can't just put a bunch of stuff at like 300 kilometers altitude because you're going to be fighting atmospheric drag the whole time.
And that becomes a very expensive thing to do. Fighting that, fighting Mother Nature to stay in orbit is a bad proposition. So.
TYSON: So, to stay in orbit, you need extra fuel to keep boosting. The Hubble telescope has had- had to be boosted- put in a very high orbit. But of course, the space station gets boosted. So- so that- when you say it's expensive, you mean you have to design the thing to always stay where you need it to be?
JAH: Yeah. I mean, here's the thing, right? I mean, I love our dear friend Albert Einstein, who talked about curvature of spacetime, right? It's like you know, things closer to very massive objects, spacetime is- is more curved and that sort of thing. And so gravity, I say, is an equal opportunity accelerator. It doesn't matter what the mass is. Tell me where you are and I'll tell you how fast you're going to be going.
But the thing is, atmospheric drag beyond gravity slows stuff down. Kind of like riding in your car. You're going at speed. Put the window down. Put your hand out. Your hand kind of gets pushed back. That's the sort of thing that satellites are kind of feeling, depending on the altitude. So you got to actually use thrusters to stay in orbit the lower that you are.
TYSON: Mm hmm. So. So, Connie, tell me what- why do you care if there are satellites up there in space if you've got the ground lights problem understood, even if it's not completely solved?
WALKER: Well, in terms of being an astronomer, it really does affect a lot of the imagery that we do in terms of if you have wide field of view on a telescope, when you're looking at a great portion of the sky and you have this satellite come along and it's going, you know, across your image, it's going to actually if you keep your- if you're integrating for a great length of time, it's going to form a streak.
And a lot of these satellites, especially in low Earth orbit, can be pretty bright. And so are you going to have a good fraction of- at least a good segment of the telescopes that are in existence at this point and soon to be in existence, like the Rubin Observatory that are going to be affected a great deal by the streaks across their imagery.
So, we're doing our best to work, actually, with industry at this point. A number of the big, big, big that guys are out there, and see if we can come up with mutual mitigation solutions.
TYSON: So, a mitigation solution, what does that look like other than don't launch? Right. I mean, so Therese, are you in conversation with people that- that- Is there actual dialog there?
JONES: Yeah, there's certainly dialog. I've been working with Connie, Meredith, Aparna, and others to try and work- to try and work on mitigating the brightness of these satellites. I mean, I don't think anyone expected the Starlink satellites at SpaceX launch to be as bright as they were. And so that was a learning moment for all of us. And we've been working with- well, one, SpaceX has put a lot of resources, both in engineering and just materials and experimenting how to make their satellites fainter.
They tried initially painting them darker and then they put these sunshades on them that, you know, sort of directed the reflectivity in a different direction. And have launched them at a knife-edge so they're less reflective directly back down to Earth. But they've been experimenting and working with astronomers to get better data on what makes these satellite fainter and try to decrease them so they're not a problem for these wide field observatories, or at least less of a problem.
And now we're working with other companies across industry to try and implement the same lessons learned from SpaceX and hoping that everyone can sort of take these lessons learned and implement them as they're designing satellites.
VENKATESAN: Neil, you know-
TYSON: That reminds me of- we- Tucson, Arizona, at- one of the- the closest town to Kitt Peak National Observatory. Connie, tell us about what the- the agreement that occurred between the astronomers and the municipal leaders of Tucson, Arizona.
WALKER: Oh, my goodness. Well, they have had- in recent years they have had replacement of the lights. Is that what you're talking about, Neil? So that they have.
TYSON: Yeah, yeah, just the total- Yeah. Yeah. I mean, they have- they have ordinances that other cities emulate
WALKER: That's right. Oh, ok. So, in 2012, I think initially and even earlier, they had extreme wonderful ordinances put in place because they're only about 65 miles from the National Observatory on Kitt Peak And- and so by putting these into fruition, they actually set an example for the world to be able to do things like that as well. And another dark sky city also in Arizona is Flagstaff.
And they've done something similar as well. And they're very aware- People in Tucson are very aware. They have, for the most part, downward-facing lights, lights that are fully shielded so that the light basically goes where it's needed, not where it's not needed. And, you know, if you combine that with other factors, like only keeping them on when you need them and placing them only where you need them, then you're looking at a fairly dark sky city. And Tucson tries to do that.
TYSON: So, Aparna- So, that's evidence that people can cooperate.
WALKER: Mm hmm.
TYSON: That's very hopeful, I would think. That people with what might have been conflicting goals- But however, Connie, if I remember correctly, if I tell you to put a lid on your light so you're not illuminating the sky, you're just illuminating down, you can use half the wattage of that light and you end up saving money. So part of, I think, why that worked was there was a benefit to the people who who embraced the dark sky concept.
All right. And it seems to me in- at least in America, you're not going to get people to do things unless they benefit. Right? And so, I don't know, maybe I'm just a little more cynical about that.
WALKER: No. Yeah. No, you're perfectly correct, Neil, because you cannot sell it to people saying, "Oh, do this for the sake of astronomy, for the astronomers that are trying to get data." They will not relate to that whatsoever. But you're absolutely right. And I think the number one point that I think does tug at the strings of people's hearts is that it is part of our cultural heritage.
And it is, you know, to have a beautiful, dark, starry night sky is a right of every human being on Earth. And so- and not just for astronomers to understand the mysteries of the universe, but for people to really become inspired to discovering its wonders. And that's why I think to a lot of people, it is inspirational.
I mean, just- just think about it. If Holst was not inspired by the sky to do The Planets, to do his compositions, musical composition or Van Gogh to actually paint Starry Night. I mean, those are people that were inspired by the night sky. And if we lose this, we're losing a great deal, especially for a younger generation
who needs that night sky to be inspired. And as we- as we sit here today, I'd say four out of every five people have never, ever seen the Milky Way arching overhead and it's almost a sin basically not to able to have that.
TYSON: Aparna, tell me what- how- how- potent is that argument, that it is a- it is a heritage of what it is to be human, let alone just one culture here or there? And so, does that work in your experience?
VENKATESAN: Thank you, Neil, and everyone. I yes, I think it's potent because it hits at the fundamental harmonic of what it means to be human, that we connect to science, connect to the skies, not just through science. But through art, culture and storytelling. And I want to amplify the storytelling aspect for just a moment.
I think one of the reasons we're called to, you know, the Big Bang origin and modern cosmology or called to a lot of origin stories is because we see ourselves as part of the story that is still unfolding and that we are invited to. So as we occupy space in the way that's currently unfolding, is this a story that we are all invited to, or does it just have a few leading characters and the rest of us just get to watch?
That's one thing. And I absolutely agree that cooperation is very much possible when we have this integrative approach. And one way is to invest back in the community. I want to point to a few initiatives on Mauna Kea as well as other telescopes on tribal lands, that the partnerships have worked out wonderfully because they invest back in the community and in a way, it's multiple knowledge traditions revitalizing each other.
When we name discoveries on the modern telescopes on Mauna Kea in the Hawaiian language, we revitalize each other's traditions. But of course, the future of telescopes in Mauna Kea’s a question for the Hawaiian people. But I just want to point to there are initiatives that have had wonderful cross-pollination.
TYSON: But surely there are people in the world, Therese, where someone launches a bunch of satellites because they're going to bring Internet to some corner of the world. So, I'm sitting there, I want the Internet and I'm going to choose—do I want the night sky? Or do I want the Internet. OK, I can dig up Hubble photos. All right. We have a much better image of the night sky than I'll ever have.
But at least I do that with the Internet that the satellites are providing me. So- So, how do you- how do you balance, if it's balanceable at all, the actual needs of developing areas of the world to be served by these satellites? Because we're not laying cable, right. We're not laying copper. Okay. With- yes, this- this primal urge to see the universe as it is and not as we- as we put graffiti upon it.
JONES: I think that's a great question that we're still trying to figure out the answer to. You know, in talking to Indigenous people across the world, I don't think there's been, you know, a monolithic response to that. We have had some tribal nations in both the US and Canada approach satellite operators directly and say- well, especially with the last two years of COVID, “We absolutely need Internet connectivity for education, for business, for telehealth purposes, because our countries are not investing in the infrastructure that it would take, which is very expensive in rural areas to get Internet connectivity to have.
And we want to be part of the 21st century.” But at the same time, you definitely do need feedback from them also about the heritage of c--the night sky. So, we're really trying to, you know, drive down the brightness of these satellites so that they’re invisible to the naked eye and SpaceX, for the most part, has gotten to that limit, though not quite the limit astronomers want.
But I think getting the perspectives of these people, you know, how do you want- Do you want to be connected to the Internet? What does that look like for you? Is there, you know, a communal mechanism where we can provide connectivity to the greatest number of people? Or, you know, what are your opinions on the overall number of satellites and what does that mean for you?
JAH: I think those are all valid questions to be asking.
TYSON: Meredith, if satellites- My understanding of satellites is when you see them- By the way, I kind of enjoy spotting satellites. You know, after sunset. It's kind of fun. In a star party I point them out. It's always a crowd pleaser, right? Yeah. This is something we launched, or humans launched and there it is moving among the stars, or at least your sight line to the stars.
But in every case, those satellites come into view only during twilight. At their altitude they- During twilight we're in darkness, but they're high enough to see sunlight. So, if it's only during twilight that they're visible then what do you care? You're getting data after twilight. Then don't they all sort of disappear anyway?
RAWLS: That would be nice, wouldn't it? That would solve some of our problems. Not all of them, but some of them. Unfortunately, many of the satellites are visible all night long. You're correct that the majority- you could say the most difficult is the twilight because they're not yet in Earth's shadow. But there are some, especially depending on their altitude, if they're a little bit higher up, they’re visible for a longer period of the night, if they're a little bit lower down, they're visible for a shorter period of the night.
But it's also a function of latitude. If you're at a high observatory or you are at a higher latitude, than that effect, the difference, is less pronounced. And so, there's a lot of different factors going on here that affect exactly what the visibility will be. But I wanted to briefly touch back on this- on this idea of, you know, Internet versus astronomy.
I don't think that we should frame it as a binary question. You know, I'm an astronomer. I care about the night sky a lot, but without the Internet I wouldn't be able to do my job or do any astronomy at all. And I feel like when we- when we say it needs to be one or the other, we're not allowing ourselves to be really creative enough or frame the problem in a bigger- in a big enough sense.
TYSON: Yeah. And that's true for so many points of conflict in today's society, as well. So it’s a little- it's a little scary when people do choose sides and then no one is in the middle talking about how to resolve both. Right. They just want to win the argument. And then- and at that point, really at the end of the day, nobody wins.
Let me get- Moriba, let me ask you- What- I've read about the Kessler Syndrome. Could you describe what that is? And then I want to take it straight to the Colonel to see what kind of thinking they've done about this, as well. And am I correct to read- because they didn't use the term in the movie Gravity.
They basically portrayed the Kessler Syndrome with the total destruction, hundred percent destruction of all satellites in orbit.
JAH: Yeah. So, look, man, I think Don Kessler was a tremendous asset to the world, to the US government, NASA and that sort of thing. I read his paper. I'm not a fan of Kessler Syndrome, to be honest with you. You know, this this idea that, you know, if humans don't launch anything else, there's- there's going to be this tipping point at which space becomes unusable because things collide with each other, you know, ad infinitum.
You know, forever. You know, per saecula saeculorum, as they would say, in Latin. I have been an observer of Mother Nature, and any time that humans stop inputting stuff into a system, Mother Nature seeks equilibrium. So, I'm a fan of seeing how Mother Nature tends to seek equilibrium. And if humans stopped launching satellites, things will collide with each other, for sure, on their own.
But at some time, at some point, the collisions become less frequent over long time scales. My guess is that Mother Nature will start cleansing some stuff. When I say long time scales, I mean, you know, centuries, millennia, that sort of thing. So, I just think that our measuring sticks tend to be very short in terms of, like, human lifetimes and that sort of stuff.
And we like to we like to kind of go, you know, a bit of the hyperbole with this sort of thing. So, I think that Kessler Syndrome is not really-
TYSON: Yeah, hyperbole because it’s a movie.
JAH: Yeah, yeah, right.
TYSON: Hyperbole makes a movie, but I'm asking not the current satellites colliding, but we're launching thousands of satellites at a clip. So, the space is becoming ever more crowded. Yes. And you still have people kinetic killing satellites. Because I presume we'll get Scott to confirm this, but there's no reason to think that's going to stop. There are other space-faring nations who will probably want to demonstrate that as well.
And so here it's- forgive the reference, but it's like peeing in the bathtub, right? Everyone is there in the same bathtub.
JAH: Yeah. So- so, let me tell you what the problem is. I like thinking of things in terms of orbital carrying capacity. That's like a real thing. Just like there's a carrying capacity to highways and ecosystems. Any given orbital highway, some synchronous, you know, LEO, GEO, whatever, has a finite capacity of how many things it can carry without things bumping into each other and things that we don't want to see happen happening. Right. So-
TYSON: Does Therese think this way as well? OK, is she saying yes we have a maximum that we won't launch beyond? It doesn't sound like she's talking that way.
JAH: I don't think Therese is yet ready to talk that way because there's some science that needs to be had. And for sure, Therese is a formidable scientist, so of course she would not be speaking beyond the headlights of science.
JONES: Yeah, I appreciate that question. You know, I think there is a lot of work to be done in examining the concept of orbital carrying capacity, but it also- the concept of a carrying capacity also it changes with new technology. Like until recently, we didn't have automated collision avoidance. And so that makes a big difference in how many satellites you can have up there.
Moriba is doing a great job getting better data, tracking all of this. If we have better data, we can have more stuff up there. So, it's sort of like if you think about it as an evolution of, you know, when there weren't many cars on the road, we didn't need traffic lights. But as we got more and more cars, we needed traffic lights and other, you know, road signs to help mitigate the congestion.
So, what those next steps are, you know, depends on the new technologies that are evolving. And we have active debris removal coming online, too. So, if we're de-orbiting things, maybe this capacity looks different.
TYSON: That's a damn good answer right there. You got me- got me almost in your camp, Therese. Colonel, do you guys think about what- Is there some maximum carrying capacity that- Let me let me sharpen that question. Is there a crowdedness of space where you can't guarantee security?
BRODEUR: I don't think- Space is big. I'm somewhere in between, you know, Kessler doom and gloom and space is really, really, really big. But here's- here's how I think about it. Just during the Kosmos 1408 destructive test, we sheltered the astronauts in the ISS 350 times. And that meant there was a piece of 1408 debris that met the criteria that the probability of intercept at the ISS was plausible enough that they would shelter them for their safety.
That's a lot. I'm concerned that there are more things in space that we're just not tracking. And so when you have a breakup event and geosynchronous orbit, those small objects are extraordinarily hard to track. So where are they and what's going to happen? It doesn't take, you know, we talk about things in terms of size of a cell phone, but what about the smaller things that it's only going to take one small piece to have that catastrophic effect on a spacecraft, which are very fragile.
And so, I'm a little concerned that our technology is still something that needs to catch up so that we can see dim, small objects and be able to catalog them correctly to have the awareness. I don't think right now, though, with the mega constellations going up, it'll be a different story. I have less concern, for example, of Starlink right now providing satellite Internet services,
than what will happen when China puts up their mega constellations in- in LEO. That's going to be a national security issue that we'll have to deal with. And we practiced with Starlink. And so we're able to-
TYSON: I like the idea of collision avoiding- avoidance sensors on satellites. That just- that sounds great. And the analogy to- cars were really dangerous until they said, “Maybe we need a stoplight.” You know, maybe we need lanes, maybe we need a crosswalk. You know, this is we know there's value to the technology, so we- no one’s- and no one's thought about it yet to- I think it was Meredith who was saying we haven't thought about how to make it work for everyone.
If we haven't thought about that yet, there's not a reason to be arguing with each other before we've actually given the rest of that sensible thought. So-
BRODEUR: And to Connie's point- to Connie's point with- with the number of satellites, I think- I mean, there's room out there to start putting a sustainability rating on everything we put in space. you know. Maybe we- maybe you have a requirement to have less of a visual magnitude or whatever. You put some type of rating that suggests here's how I'm going to pollute from a light perspective or here's I’m going to pollute- or here, you know, there's numerous ways which we could at least know going into a satellite launch what the sustainability aspects are of each- of each piece of- manmade objects we put in space.
TYSON: Connie, you had something to put in there.
WALKER: Yeah, we are doing are- we are starting to work with industry to do our best to come up with best practices and guidelines for mitigations and stuff like that that they need to hear in order for them to design their satellites, the next generation satellites with those things in mind. But my- my worry is, is, you know, we can put these- we can pre-designe them, we can put these Band-Aids that astronomers are trying to do, avoidance kind of software for, you know, not- avoiding the satellites when they go overhead.
But I don't know. I I'm just- hHow can I say this? I had this really good question, and now it's not coming to me, but it's like plastics, OK? It's like, you know, you have this newfangled invention-
TYSON: I didn't see that one coming. Plastic.
WALKER: Yeah. Yeah, I know.
JAH: Plastic satellites, man.
WALKER: No, no, no, no. No, no. Plastics, where, you know, there's this greatest invention since sliced bread, basically. And everybody loved it and wanted to put it to be used right away. Nobody thought about the environmental impact, right, that- that plastics would have. And now we're, we're trying to do this remedial stuff afterwards in order to fix it. So, what I'm saying is, is there is some way that we could slow down just a little and let scientists do their thing with the- you know, with the engineers at the various big, you know, space industry companies and try to fix this a little bit better than, you know, continuing what we're doing now. So, that’s my-
TYSON: Meredith. Where were you saying?
RAWLS: Yeah, I was going to make a very similar point to Connie in that, really, we need to think of orbital space as a human environment. And this is a large piece of what we argue in the paper that you so kindly advertised at the start of this whole thing. And- and that is that the- Plastics in the ocean or plastics in general is a wonderful analogy for this.
I feel like the carrying capacity argument is kind of like saying, “OK, but like how many plastic cups can we put in the ocean like before the fish die?” Right. And like that's not the right question here. Like, you know, we all want to be able to use space for so many different, amazing purposes for decades, for generations. And that's really not how we're framing the problem in most of these discussions.
And that really concerns me. I think we need to consider the cumulative effects when like, you know, a few satellites are launched—that’s fine! A few more? Yeah, no problem. But then suddenly it's like hundreds of thousands and we're in a totally different regime. That's what concerns me.
TYSON: Forgive me how my brain is wired because I spend so much time sitting next to a professional comedian. But you were talking about cups in the ocean, and all I can think of is do fish adapt to use those red cups that you use at parties. They’re all at the bar.
JAH: Come on, man. Come on, Neil.
RAWLS: Yeah, we got to build a party boat for space is clearly the conclusion.
TYSON: Aparna, what did you have to contribute here?
VENKATESAN: Just wanted to amplify the environmental aspects of this issue, as many people have brought up, but it's even broken down into several sub issues. And this is where I think global coordination, global regulation and oversight, learning from the history of other industries, like many people here have brought up, is important—transportation or other things. And, you know, moving away from the binary thinking of earth environment versus space environment, it's a continuum, and the environmental aspect has at least three parts to it.
Environmental aspects at launch sites and then environmental aspects in orbit, which include the debris issues and keeping track of some of the smallest un-trackable debris, which is not as easily removed, right. It could lead potentially to a rise in global sky brightness that is non-linear and we don't know quite which way it will go. Removing streaks is one thing.
We don't know what we can do about a rise in global sky brightness. But the third aspect is that of reentry, right? We have yet to have a, you know, effective debris- you know, we don't know how well debris removal will work. Our only approach right now is kind of to decommission them. And I think the time scale is- they have up to 25 years old.
Although most companies aim for much less. But the decommissioning then puts it back into our atmosphere, into our oceans. So, how do we balance the health of the oceans, to the plastics analogy, to the health of the oceans above us?
TYSON: That's something that people haven't talked about, Aparna. People haven't really gone there. The fact that the Pacific Ocean is one-third of all longitude on Earth, which makes it an ideal toilet bowl to drop dead satellites that you de-orbit. If we drain the Pacific Ocean, the whole history of the space program would be there at the bottom of the ocean.
And I don't hear people talking about keeping the ocean clean I think otherwise you have to design satellites that completely burn up in the atmosphere with no pieces left. So, Moriba, is that something that's real?
JAH: Yeah. Look, I mean, this is the thing that really gets my blood boiling, man, because I think you hit on it is that people just don't understand the interconnectedness of all these types of ecosystems. Right? They think ocean is separate from land, land, separate from air, air, separate from space. All this stuff is really interconnected. And I think the thing that- I think the challenge that we have is to show the rest of humanity evidence of this interconnectedness so that people will be, you know, more reluctant to say, “You know what? that's not my problem.
Outer space, who cares about that sort of stuff? Oh, we got all this junk in space. You know what? How is that affecting me, like right here in Los Angeles kind of stuff?” Like, I think that we can do a better job showing this interconnectedness so that people can actually, I don't know, feel some empathy and compassion and want to solve these sorts of things.
So, yeah, absolutely.
TYSON: In fact, I bet Scott could comment on this, that there is no coordinated security without all the branches of the armed forces that specialize in their realm. There's always got to be somebody above that coordinating it. Otherwise, what are you doing? It's a- It becomes a free-for-all at that point, right? So, we have close, close-
BRODEUR: Just as much of a-
TYSON: Yeah. Go on.
BRODEUR: I was just going to say, it's just as much of a problem coordinating it in military operations as it is in environmental realms. So, trying to understand the interconnectedness of all the domains of warfare, It has the same effect that it does understanding the connectedness and environmental perspectives.
TYSON: Because I remember- I'm old enough to remember that no one really thought about the atmosphere as a connective element of the Earth's ecosystem. Right? So, you'd see drawings- If we say draw Earth, no one would draw Earth with clouds. They would just draw continents and oceans, and that's it. And then when NOAA was founded in 1970—National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—it was like, oh my gosh, ocean and atmosphere in the same phrase. Maybe we should pay closer attention to that.
So, so it looks like we are at the cusp- the cusp. That's very, very positive. Maybe it's not that positive. We're at the front door of having to think that way about this problem. We all agree on that. Now, now let me ask you, Colonel, you're, you're military and you want to make things safe for everybody. Why don't you all figure out a way to, to scoop up all the debris?
Why not? Can we make that an objective of the Space Force going forward? Now that that's your domain.
BRODEUR: I'm all about cleaning up the space debris. But what- and I think from a Space Force and Space Command perspective, what we're working through is how to incentivize industry to do that. And so how do we get enough profit out there so that a company would be incentivized to go out and try to clean this up? Or how do we regulate such that there would be an incentive to- to build a capability? What we run into problematic-
TYSON: It's especially tr- that's- Totally buy into that, if it also means they can conduct safer business in space. Right. That's that self benefit from thinking altruistically.
BRODEUR: Yeah. But from a military perspective, anything that we could build that would be beneficial to cleaning something up would automatically have a dual use connotation. And we do it with Chinese capability as well. It has a grappling arm technology. So if you built something that could reach out and grab something, it would immediately be perceived as a counter space threat.
And so, coming from industry, seeing things like a mission extension vehicle from Northrop and others that are able to extend the life of satellites, those- those things need to be incentivized. You know, having something that can go out and clean up debris in low-Earth orbit, I would support wholeheartedly industry taking on those and I would- I would be very supportive of us as a nation incentivizing and as with allies and partners as well, to get more people on board with doing that.
TYSON: Just to be clear, when you say dual use, you mean whatever was the intended use, to fix up, mend, remove, dual use would mean it could be used for aggressive intent- with aggressive intent. Is that what you mean by dual use?
BRODEUR: We saw two capabilities out of China, the SJ-17 and SJ-21. Those both had robotic arm- or both have robotic arm technology on them. They could just as easily make a repair on a satellite or do some on-orbit maintenance as they could remove a solar panel off of an adversary's satellite or grapple them and prevent them from doing their mission.
And so, there is a military-civilian dual use dichotomy that if the US government invests in such technology, it could be perceived as having a nefarious or a counter-space capability associated with it. And it wouldn't be just labeled or characterized as something that was good for the environment or debris cleaning type of capability.
TYSON: Got it. And of course, that's what you're paid to do, to recognize how something could be used in a threatening way. I'm reminded at this moment of the 1967 space treaty, a treaty for the for the peaceful—it's got some long title that I always forget—the peaceful use of outer space or something, and it was signed by space-faring nations and aspiring space-faring nations at the time, the United States included.
Let me just ask, is that- does any of that still apply today? That was 55 years ago. I remember there was a little loophole that said you're allowed to- it said no armament in space and if someone needs help you go help them even if they're your adversary. It was very kumbaya. It was very like United Nations 1960s, OK, written all over it.
But there was a little loophole there that said you can defend yourself if necessary. I don't know if those are the exact words, but that was the intent. So, is modern presence in space honoring that space treaty? Or are we- is it time for that to be rewritten to put it into the 21st century?
BRODEUR: So, I'm assuming you're asking me, Dr. Tyson.
TYSON: Yeah, kind of. Yeah.
BRODEUR: So, the Outer Space Treaty has a lot of cool pieces to it. And I think the loophole that- I think the loophole you're referring to is there- there can't be any nuclear weapons in space, which was- which was more prolific and concerning at the time that it was written. But- but then we talk about militarization of space and weaponization of space, and there's a lot of capabilities that could be considered.
The militarization of space, this has happened. I mean, we've- we have communication satellites that support military operations, and we have GPS satellites that support military operations and reconnaissance and surveillance satellites, et cetera. But what we've seen most recently is the weaponization of space. And you saw just a few years ago a Russian Kosmos launch that- that followed closely to a U.S. surveillance satellite.
And we felt it was an unsafe testing of that kinetic weapon, which was- General Raymond refers to it as a Russian nesting doll, where it's a satellite that has its smaller engagement satellites that can fire an actual kinetic weapon. And so, it's those types of-
TYSON: General Raymond’s actually been on my- on my podcast. General Raymond is the commander of the Space Force. Is that correct?
BRODEUR: Chief of Space Operations.
TYSON: How do you refer to him specifically?
BRODEUR: Jay. I'm just kidding. He's the Chief of Space Operations. I don't call him that.
JAH: Homey. Homey don't play that.
BRODEUR: But this is- this has really become what the crux of the of the issue is, is how the proliferation of these weapons that Vice President Harris came out and said we're not going to bring out weapons and conduct tests that are going to be debris-causing. But these- the weaponization that's happening from China and Russia are really holding at risk these- these space capabilities that we not only use in our everyday lives.
I mean, you can see through the use of GPS, everyone on this on this panel and everyone that's attending is using that every day in their lives from every credit card transaction, et cetera. And so, these capabilities are being held at risk. And so, working with allies and partners and working with commercial and through hopefully a whole of government approach we'd like to see a norms of behavior discussion.
And we like to see some normalization of what behaviors are acceptable and what aren't. And I think for the United States and our allies and commercial partners, right now, things that are debris-causing just don't make any sense. And we're- we're creating debris just- just by putting things in orbit, but creating unnecessary debris for tests and things that just are known technologies that don't require it, just don't make any sense.
And I think we would like to get behind more of those responsible behaviors.
TYSON: And you speak of our adversaries and our- our friends. I'm reminded of a quote, I think it was Abraham Lincoln who said, “Do we not defeat our enemies by making them our friends?” And if the world were friends with itself, we wouldn't even be having this conversation, at least not on that path. Let me- We're going to wind this down a bit, but I want to get Therese to just tell us-
How many satellites will make you happy? How many where does-c where does it end? Thousands are being launched every 18 months or whatever is the rate. And yes, space is vast. I get that. And it's a lot of empty- I get that. But does- is anyone thinking where this will land? Just as a point we made in this panel about plastic. Nobody was thinking where the endgame of using plastic would take us. So, what can you tell us about- Is there a committee in the- the SIA, Satellite Industry Association, who's thinking about the long-term future so that they can come back to us and say, no, don't do that?
JONES: Well, all of our companies have different business cases that depend on different numbers of satellites. So, I'm not sure we're going to come up with one number that will satisfy everyone. But we have had a number of discussions on space sustainability. We came up with a high-level set of safety principles that all of our members agreed to adhere to that was talking about, you know, mitigating space debris and the design of your satellites, communicating better between different operators in the event of a collision.
And I think those discussions are really important to have with industry. I think also at some point we will hit a sort of carrying capacity in terms of numbers of subscribers on Earth who think, you know, these satellites are useful and there won’t be a financial incentive for some of these companies to keep launching. I mean, we've seen before mergers of companies that realized the customers that they thought they have maybe don't exist or they have the wrong business model.
So, we're- I’m not saying that, you know-
TYSON: Iridium was a- Iridium was a- was a consequence of that, wasn't it? I mean, Iridium had great ambitions and it just never panned out in financing.
JONES: And then they've revived but with a new business model and after they were sort of bailed out. But I think there's- there are going to be a lot of changes in the space industry. We're seeing a lot of companies with innovative technology. There will certainly be some mergers and maybe not all of these satellites that are being promised will all launch.
TYSON: Well, I'm just glad you have an astrophysics background, so you know how to talk to the rest of us and you give us an ear. And just one last question I meant to ask you, Meredith, the Vera Rubin Telescope is mostly automated, isn't that correct? And it's- it's looking- from what I've read, it's getting multiple images all the time of the night sky.
And then there's some software that's checking for something that's changed. Right. And then it goes back in to follow up on it all by itself. Is that correct?
RAWLS: More or less? Yeah.
TYSON: OK, so if it's that much software-driven, can't you just get all of the launch data from Therese? I’m saying, here is this evening’s satellite that's going to cross in your sky and then have the software just take it out? And not then have it confused with an asteroid later on?
RAWLS: So, we're working on a small version of that-ish. But there's two main problems. One main problem is that in you know, in just two years, the satellite population is going to continue to increase drastically and it's really hard to predict what's it’s going to look like. So, you know, your picture of, you know, the satellites tonight is basically just covered up over the entire sky.
You know, there's not like a region you can go to that won’t have a satellite in it. Because the field of view of the telescope is so big. Like there's- there's- there's literally nowhere to look and still observe the sky. If you want to avoid everything. We are-
TYSON: Is that different from airplanes? I mean, airplanes fly into your view as well, right? I don't see you trying to say stop air traffic.
RAWLS: There’s nearly as many. And we didn't build a telescope by an airport.
TYSON: Ok. Good answer.
RAWLS: But that’s the real problem here, is geographic isolation doesn't fix this problem, right? That's how we get around a lot of other light pollution or airplanes or what have you. Is you build it in the middle of nowhere and it turns out everywhere is, you know, under where satellites go. So, we are working on- To answer your other question, we are working on software to identify and, like, not use the pixels and the streaks that we're going to inevitably have in our data.
To what degree is the current question? And, you know, we're going to do our best to provide data products that are not just full of satellite trash, but we're going to miss some things. You know, we're not perfect. Algorithms aren't perfect. And it's really just a matter of, you know, will we accidentally have some discoveries that get, you know, announced or published that are, “Oh, well, just kidding.
That's a satellite.” Like, “Sorry, everybody retract, retract.” And you know, we don't want to spend our time and energy doing that. We want to do cool science.
TYSON: And so, Connie, I'm just reminded by Meredith's comment that when we build observatories, we find isolated places that are away from light and away from, you know, any other kind of contaminating electromagnetic energy. But you can't build it away from the sky. No matter what, no matter what.
VENKATESAN: And I'll just add real quick, too, that a lot of the trails, you know, at low horizon or the circumpolar sky, they can be- maybe taken out for professional astronomy. But- but I think with real-time observations, things like wayfinding or other cultural practices, we don't have the back-correcting software. Now, they may not get as bright as for some of those horizon markers or circumpolar constellations.
But- but yeah, it is a concern. They've become so numerous, it's hard to get away from them in a typical exposure, whether amateur or professional astronomy.
TYSON: Interesting that you use the term wayfinding, which became a little more popular after the movie, the Disney film. But the wayfinders- basically navigation but not in a traditional- not in the way we think of it, right. It's using nature to find your way around. Very common in the Polynesian folks who went thousands of miles across the ocean.
VENKATESAN: Thousands of miles. Yeah, it's not instrument navigation using the stars, wind, and ocean current patterns. So, it's extraordinarily subtle and extraordinarily skilled. Yeah yeah.
TYSON: And you start interfering with that, it's a whole cultural collapse right there of a tradition. Well, we touched everybody there. Moriba, you got something to say?
JAH: Yeah. So this whole idea of wayfinding, I think it's really good. You know, one of the things that we're doing with this whole Privateer thing is really- In fact, we call our app Wayfinder because-
TYSON: Oh, I meant to ask you that. Wait. Let me- let me actually- let me just- You are, among others, part of a new venture called Privateers. That is all about this. Just tell- just give me a sentence or two about what Privateers are.
JAH: Yeah. So- so, we Privateers are all about this idea that all things are interconnected, and that stewardship is what we need to embrace to- to thrive. And so, you know, how can we aggregate as much data and information as possible to provide humanity with insights about itself so we can stop, like, hurting ourselves long term. And it's focused on space at first, but it's really very holistic, connecting all these ecosystems that we spoke about. And Wayfinder is the main app.
And the cool thing that I just want to follow up with a point about this is that, you know, it's all about having a successful conversation with the environment. That's what Indigenous people do. That's what we need to do for space exploration and all these things.
TYSON: Well, that's, that is so succinctly put and- but I- I would say not many succinct things are profound. That was profound. Just to even pose it the way you did. It makes us all just pause and think and feel guilty about the plastic cups, among other things.
What is the environmental impact of commercial space exploration? Sixty-five years ago, one satellite orbited Earth. Today, that number has risen to more than 20,000. As private space exploration surges, so do new kinds of pollution. Light trails from hundreds of satellite “constellations” streak across sensitive astronomical imagery. Debris from defunct or destroyed satellites that remain in orbit pose collision risks to other satellites—commercial, civil, and military, not to mention orbiting space telescopes. Large chunks of debris that de-orbit do so uncontrollably, putting Earth’s surface at risk. Join Neil deGrasse Tyson and our panel of experts for a dynamic discussion about the environmental implications of the private space exploration era.