Losing The Sky

Losing The Sky
Cover of “Losing The Sky”. The cover image is a picture taken by astrophotographer Rafael Schmall, showing the star Albireo (aka Beta Cygni) crossed by streaks caused by Starlink satellites.

This is a non-technical polemic about the pollution of the night sky. You can get the ebook from Apple Books or Amazon, or Google Play Books. Only £1.99! There is also a paperback version at Amazon which is £5.99. For people who are nervous about ebooks, the Google version is particularly nice because you don’t need an app – you can just read it in the browser. (Note that the Amazon link is to amazon.co.uk – you will probably need to search for it in your local version of Amazon, because you can’t buy from the UK website if you live in France, etc. For example, here is the German version.)

What is it all about?

I love Astronomy. I love Space Exploration. I love the Internet. Until 2020, I assumed that these three loves do not clash, and indeed that they feed each other in a virtuous cycle. It now seems that was just a Moon Age Daydream. A new generation of satellite megaconstellations – fleets of thousands of low orbit satellites – is on its way, aimed at producing ubiquitous global high-speed internet connection. All very exciting – but these objects pollute the night sky, streak across our astronomical images, blare loudly and unpredictably at our radio telescopes, and increase the danger of spacecraft collisions, pushing us towards a space debris run-away that may make space industry unsustainable. The scary thing is that this may be the thin end of the wedge… opening the door to tens of thousands more, and maybe even sky advertising.

My fellow astronomers round the world have been forming professional working groups, and doing technical studies – you can read all about those and follow the links in the book. This is a bit different. Its aimed at the general reader, its a very personal view, and tries to set the issues in context. My aim is to bring the issue to as much public attention as possible.

Mount Wilson, September 2020, showing light pollution and forest fires in a single image. Taken by the HPWren camera.

As I wrote the book, I came to feel that the problem of sky pollution is really an example of environmental damage, and the tragedy of the commons – the sky seems to be a free resource, so why not use it? But we all pay the price. At a moral level and a practical level, the problems of climate change, loss of diversity, plastic in the sea, and animal cruelty are all much more important; but I see the loss of the sky through unthinking commercial exploitation as an example of environmental damage: the last damned straw.

An An image of the sky taken by the Dark Energy Survey Camera in 2019. The effect in this case is particularly severe because many Starlink satellites are clumped together during the bright orbit raising phase; however, soon this will be happening evry few weeks. Credit: CTIO/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/DECam DELVE Survey. More detail can be found here.

You might think: well, its sad, but its a price we have to pay to connect the world. But we can provide global internet connection without thousands of Low Earth Orbit satellites. You only need those low-orbit satellites if you want the very shortest possible communication time delay – for example for high-frequency financial trading. Read the book to understand why!

Praise for the book
Some people have already been nice about the book.

From the foreword by Brian May:
“Professor Lawrence, in this timely book, tackles an issue which is about to become highly contentious around the world… This book will hopefully spark enough discussion to put the brakes on this destruction of our dark skies.”

From Dave Eicher, editor-in-chief of Astronomy Magazine
“The rapidly increasing problem of numerous satellites streaking across the night sky threatens to disrupt astronomical research, which is in a golden age of discovery. Professor Lawrence’s book ought to be required reading for every astronomer and astronomy enthusiast who values the starry sky and what might happen to it in future times.”

From Dava Sobel, author of “Longitude”, “Galileo’s daughter”, and “The Glass Universe”

“At the beginning of this essential book, Andy Lawrence shares dark sky memories in which even a car breakdown on a deserted road turns magical and formative when the stars appear. The encroachment of light and spacecraft on the night sky, like other manmade threats to our environment, will affect the entire human population. We must act now to save our live view of the universe before it is completely obliterated by fleets of commercial satellites. Read this engaging book for the full story — up to and including the appendix with its wealth of links to further information and invitations to action. Let there be dark.”

From Mark McCaughrean, Senior Science Adviser, European Space Agency
“They say that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The same applies to “cheap internet access”, especially when it comes from space. As commercial developers flood low Earth orbit with satellites to exploit the demand for more movie streaming, videoconferencing, low-latency gaming, and high-speed trading, what’s the real cost? Are we willing to sacrifice the night sky as thousands of artificial objects constantly streak overhead, changing the natural heavens for astronomers and the wider public alike without escape? Andy Lawrence’s book, “Losing the Sky”, cogently summarises the issues and the concern that the world may be unwittingly sacrificing a public commons, our fundamental common heritage of a portal on the Universe, on the altar of Mammon. It’s time to stop, think, and decide whether we’re really willing to pay that price.”

From Pippa Goldschmidt, author of The Falling Sky and The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space
“An important book about an important subject. The night sky is part of our natural heritage, and here Professor Andy Lawrence explains how obliteration of our view of the heavens by the next generation of communications satellites is akin to destruction of the Earth’s natural habitats. He’s persuasive on why we should all – not just astronomers – care about this loss, and what we can do about it.”

From John A. Murray, author or editor of 45 nature books, including Wild Africa, A Republic of Rivers, and The Islands and The Sea:
“Sixty years ago, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, alerting the nation and the world to the widespread dangers posed by toxic chemicals in the environment to nature and humankind. So influential was that landmark work, that President Kennedy took the first governmental measures to regulate dangerous artificial chemicals. Similarly, Professor Lawrence has alerted readers to the existential threat posed by large-scale satellite projects to humankind’s oldest and most treasured heritage — the heavens. It is a conflict between what Hunter S. Thompson would have called the “Greedheads” — individuals of enormous wealth who wish to profit from space—and the universal human right of people for an unobstructed view of the stars. Simply put, this remarkable book should be in all libraries, public or private, that aspire to be complete on the subjects of science and technology. Working together, people around the planet, inspired by this eloquent and passionate book, can put an end to the madness and folly of artificial constellations