Night sky not being considered in climate crisis, say astronomers

Amanda Nicholls June 16, 2020
Night sky not being considered in climate crisis, say astronomers

Although only 22 years old, Josh Drury has already seen a dramatic change in the quality of the night sky in his lifetime. An astronomer from the Mendip Hills, he lives in a protected area in the UK for dark skies. However, he says their clarity is changing and the situation is getting out of control – on a nationwide scale.

Light pollution is best illustrated by images taken from the International Space Station (Image: NASA)

Josh told The Focus: “Light pollution affects all of us and this is best illustrated by images taken by astronauts on board the International Space Station. When they look down at night, they see the outlines of major continents, which is the result of street lighting. 

“They also observe lights in our oceans, more noticeably in the North Sea. These are major-scale oil and gas platforms expelling pollutants into our atmosphere with the potential to affect migratory patterns of nocturnal marine life. This may be a potential cause of the gradual decline of listed species.”

Human health

Human health can also be affected by direct exposure to light at night. This is in terms of the production of bodily hormones including melatonin, which is responsible for maintaining our sleep patterns. There can also be consequences for mental health. 

Josh said: “In more recent times we’ve seen the likes of major organisations such as SpaceX launch ‘mega satellite constellation projects’ to provide global internet services. 

“Starlink – a project launched by Elon Musk – intends to launch an initial 12,000 satellites into low Earth orbit in the next five years. The Federal Communications Commission in the US has now approved the launch of 42,000 satellites. 

(Image: English Heritage)

“Where was the discussion? Why was the international astronomy community not informed about this? Now we’re seeing the effects of hundreds and, in the near future, thousands of satellites outnumbering visible stars.

“This will mean future generations won’t be able to view the major constellations and we may well be the last generation to observe them in their entirety. Night-sky conservation isn’t being considered in light of the climate crisis, and our window to the universe isn’t being protected.”


For Josh, while projects including Starlink are considered ground-breaking technologies that provide essential services, the fact the astronomy community wasn’t addressed on the issue is a major concern.

He said: “Since the time of prehistory we have looked into the night sky in awe and wonder and now this is being taken away from us in the same sort of way plastic is polluting our oceans.”

Major observatories around the world, which are all based on time-dependent astronomical observations, are affected when satellites pass within their field of view.

But SpaceX isn’t the only company that aims to launch its own fleet of satellites.

Josh said: “Competitors intend to launch their own ‘constellations’, which will eventually crowd the night sky and ruin the spectacle for future generations. 

When satellites are launched they appear as a ‘string of pearls’ (Image: Marco Langbroek/Sattrackcam Leiden)

“When these satellites are launched they appear as a ‘string of pearls’. They are bright and intrusive – covering a large portion of the night sky. They gradually become more separated as they are propelled into higher orbits. In doing so, they become dimmer but also visible for longer periods of the night.

Potential collisions

“For current ground-based observations detecting near-Earth objects, there is a potential these satellite constellations will obscure objects that could collide with the Earth. This wasn’t discussed with the astronomy community before plans were approved.” 

To illustrate his concerns and raise awareness of the issue, Josh has created a series of free short films.

Back To The Light identifies the impact light pollution has on the natural world and what’s being done to tackle this ‘lighting crisis’. Starlink – A Battle For The Skies, meanwhile, voices the concerns from the international astronomy community and shows how our view of the night sky may change in the next five years. 

Follow Josh on Facebook or Instagram to see more of his work.

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Furloughed writer and magazine editor from Bristol, specialising in food and drink, music, travel, arts and lifestyle.