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On Monday, SpaceX launched 60 new Starlink satellites into space. In related news, astronomers worldwide have begun to panic.

SpaceX has sent 120 satellites into the sky to date. To achieve its goal of creating a globally available internet system, the Elon Musk-led company is going to need exponentially more of them in the near future. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has already approved 12,000 Starlink satellites, and SpaceX requested clearance last month for an additional 30,000.

It's a worthy goal. It also comes with an unintended consequence: light pollution. Astronomers have been publicly worrying about the brightness of the satellites since SpaceX's first launch in May, noting that their area of study will be greatly affected if their telescopes can't see past Musk's internet tech. Monday's event was no different, with astronomers sounding off to the New York Times:

  • "It will look as if the whole sky is crawling with stars."--Dr. James Lowenthal, Smith College

  • "It's really a mess."--Dr. Anthony Tyson, University of California, Davis

  • "We're redoing the models now just to see what's visible at any one time--and it's really quite frightening."--Dr. Patrick Seitzer, University of Michigan

A number of companies have been colliding with unintended consequences lately. Bird didn't mean to create a public safety crisis by littering city streets with e-scooters. Facebook didn't mean to create a political firestorm of disinformation that would affect U.S. elections.

It all makes me think about a piece of news from August, when 181 top U.S. CEOs made a bold statement: They have a commitment to serve all of their company's stakeholders, not just their stockholders. In other words, they have a broader mission of social good--in addition to financially benefiting their direct owners. The announcement was met with a generally positive reaction (if not some cautious skepticism).

Now, Musk wasn't among those 181 CEOs that signed the public declaration--but the Starlink project has always contained a socially responsible mission, given how much of the world currently lacks reliable, high-speed internet. It's also an example of how pursuing social good is often neither easy nor straight-forward.

Here's the good news: Musk is reportedly trying to find a solution. The Times noted that SpaceX has been working with an American Astronomical Society committee and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to address Starlink-related concerns as they emerge. Some of the astronomers in the Times story remain unconvinced. Arguably, it would have been better if SpaceX had understood these concerns before launching a single satellite.

But to paraphrase a recent episode of The Good Place, what matters most is trying to be a little better today than you were yesterday. And for any company aiming to take into account all of its stakeholders, I can't think of a better guiding light.

Published on: Nov 12, 2019