From June 29 to July 2 this year, the American Astronomical Society held a virtual conference on satellite constellations’ impact on optical astronomy. The scientists were concerned that satellite deployment, particularly bright satellites in low-Earth orbit, will prevent us from collecting meaningful optical data from the stars.
I grew up in Montreal and never realized what the night sky could look like till I went camping in provincial parks and saw the full extent of the stars on clear nights. In the city, I could barely even see the Big Dipper. But in the country, the full glory of the night sky with the Milky Way and millions upon millions of individual twinkles of light appeared. Astronomy had never interested me, but seeing the stars for the first time made me realise the beauty of God’s creation.
Because of the effects of light glow from cities, many countries, including Canada, have established “dark-sky preserves.” These are areas where artificial lighting is restricted or nonexistent, like in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
Dark-sky preserves now exist in almost all Canadian provinces. People can go to these areas and observe the night sky in the way humans did in the ages before artificial light provided us with a way to get around in the dark.
Not only city lights but the number and height of satellites we are deploying to help with electronic communication create problems for astronomers when collecting high-quality data about the cosmos. These satellites reflect sunlight for several hours after sunset or before sunrise, creating contaminations in photos. Many companies and governments are in the process of deploying bright low-orbit satellites. While these satellites serve a useful purpose and will be needed if we are to deploy technologies like self-driving cars, they may cost us a clear view of the universe and prevent us from discovering its secrets.
At what cost?
Imagine if the wise men had been looking for the Christ Child in today’s world. Jerusalem and, I’m sure, even Bethlehem are places where our electrical city lights now obscure the night sky. How would they have followed the birth star? Does our technology hide God’s voice and presence from us, just like our satellites hide God’s creation? As we depend more and more on our technology, are we losing our ability to hear the call of our Lord?
The Christ Child’s arrival was a non-event on the world stage – a baby born under suspicious circumstances, to displaced parents, in an occupied country, who had no birthplace but a stable. Yet this birth occurring in obscurity was the way the Godhead entered his creation. How do we find our way to the stable in the bright light of the shopping mall?
The tension we live with, particularly in the pandemic, is that we are dependent on our technology (how many of our congregations meet over Zoom?), but at what cost? No one would want to go back to the literal Dark Ages without streetlights. We appreciate the seamless communication systems that hold us together in this pandemic, but can we still see the birth star that brought the wise men to Jesus?
Perhaps we need to establish spiritual dark-sky preserves to give us the chance to see God’s very profound, but hidden, actions in today’s world. One of these opportunities may be to see the Christ Child in the lost and marginalized in our society. Another might be to truly obey the sabbath command to rest once a week. Maybe, just maybe, this abrupt stop in our hectic lives caused by the pandemic is an opportunity to see and hear the voice of our Lord again.