This recent story which included this short thread prompted me to post this story. The picture looks nice, but consider the amount of light being aimed up into the sky.
As an amateur astronomer I have a biased interest in light pollution. Traditionally light pollution has come from the ground, but the ISS opens up an entirely new threat which I'll get to below. First though, some background.
Astronomers obviously consider excessive light a bad thing. Light from towns and cities washes out the sky, making it impossible to see the stars. I live amongst about 100,000 people, and I still have to travel at least 100km (roughly 75 miles) to get a decent view. Even then it's not optimal.
If you've never been under a really dark sky, it's a beautiful sight. It's possible to get light pollution filters for some telescopes, but looking through a filter with a telescope is poor compensation for being able to see the sky as it is.
A common argument defending light pollution is that astronomers are a minority in the community. If they have to travel away from civilisation to do what they enjoy, it's no great collective loss. On it's own this has merit, but I think it's also narrow minded. One of my favourite quotes from the front page of the New England Light Pollution Advisory Group (and I've quoted it here before) says:
"Imagine children growing up without being allowed to see trees or birds (or any other aspect of nature): now, how is this any different from preventing our children from seeing the stars? But by our thoughtless erection of outdoor lights everywhere --- without consideration of glare and light trespass, without consideration of safety, without consideration of the right to privacy, and without consideration of the energy waste and the waste of taxpayer dollars --- we are making it so that a very small percentage of children are able to grow up in the world today with the ability to see and ponder the wonders of our beautiful starry night sky.
"Indeed, after a full century now of outdoor electrical lighting, one must wonder what a lot of the lighting manufacturers and installers were thinking when they put up such glary monstrosities as now permeate our world. And there is real overkill in the sheer numbers of outdoor lights now in existence! Far fewer outdoor lights are needed than are now lit every night, particularly over streets, highways, and parking lots."
This explains perfectly how I consider the night sky - as a scarce resource that can be enjoyed. I don't expect or need everyone to agree with me. There are a lot of other reasons why people should be conscious of lighting besides protecting the sky, like efficiency and security, for example. (As opposed to perceived security from having lots of light lazily splashed everywhere, making shadows darker and producing more glare.) Unfortunately as some here will be familiar with, it's difficult to get some messages through to people.
What does this have to do with the International Space Station? Ignorance, mostly. The majority of today's developed population has grown up in cities, never having seen the night sky properly. Some wouldn't care anyway, but others are being denied the chance to experience what they're losing. People see it as a great and fun thing to have a really bright and easily visible artificial bright light shining down on them from space. It's likely that most won't care after a week of it.
The quote in the opening shows the typical media slant on things. I don't see how putting a reflective object in space is a "symbol of great accomplishments". It probably could have been done thirty years ago, and now the marketing of it is just a gee-whiz thing for publicity.
Moving along, it's one light and it orbits - it's not up there the whole time. But where is this leading? Read on.
In January 2000, the International Dark-Sky Association posted two articles (article 1 and article 2) expressing concern about giant advertising billboards in space.
To summarise the articles, Space Marketing Inc, based in Roswell, Georgia (USA), proposed to launch a billboard one kilometer (a bit less than a mile) in dimension. It would be visible for about 10 minutes out of every 90
In a twist of irony when challenged about the disruption of the night sky, Space Marketing Inc said it had intended to display environmentally friendly messages and symbols on it. The content is hardly the point, but it still opens the door for any number of commercial ventures. My point here is simply to ask: Do you want your quiet, romantic evening sunset away from civilisation to be sponsored by McDonalds?
A project like this hasn't taken off so far, but unless people in developed countries start to notice and take the sky seriously it's only a matter of time before it does. The night sky is valuable real-estate! It could also be political. For example, one government might spread propaganda to citizens of another government in a similar way to the USSR's alleged plans to nuke the Moon during the space race.
Billboards or not, artificial lights from space would destroy the environment as we know it. It takes at least half an hour for people's eyes to adjust to the dark for properly looking at the night sky. This could be near impossible with bright lights continually overhead, impossible to escape wherever you are in the world. Obviously there are ethical issues about one person's right to force a message onto everyone, irrespective of whether it's commercial or political. This is not just a problem for astronomers, but for everyone.
What I'm trying to do with this article is bring the problem to people's attention, and get any feedback and experiences people have had with light pollution in general. If you like the idea of living and working in space then that's great. I do too. But also keep in mind the environmental problems that bright light causes, wherever it comes from.
Usually we don't really need it - invading light is either from bad design or popularity contests. What is this obsession people have with bright lights?