Elon Musk's Starlink faces challenge from UNESCO to preserve Iraqi heritage

The SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's Starlink satellite internet system is facing criticism from the United Nations, cultural heritage experts, and the Iraqi government over fears that its satellite dishes could damage archaeological sites in Iraq. Last week, UNESCO, the United Nations cultural agency, warned Starlink to rethink its plans for operating in the country, stating that the company must ensure its technology does not jeopardize cultural heritage.

According to UNESCO, Starlink has already registered with the UN's International Telecommunications Union to provide services in Iraq. In a letter to SpaceX's director of satellite policy, Elizabeth Debicki, UNESCO's assistant director-general for culture, Francesca Barberis, expressed concern that the plan to implement Starlink in Iraq could violate the country's cultural heritage. The letter states that regardless of where the satellite beams originate, the coverage area of the satellite includes parts of Iraq, such as the Iraqi desert where several UNESCO World Heritage sites exist, and these areas should be protected.

The archaeological sites in Iraq include Babylon, the most iconic landmark in the country and one of the most famous ancient sites globally, as well as the Eridu Mound, the first settlement in the ancient city of Eridu, and the Telloh, the biblical town of Ur. The concerns surround the threat of electromagnetic interference from Starlink's satellite dishes to the archaeological sites and monuments in the country.

The Iraqi government also criticized the plan, stating that SpaceX should have consulted Iraq before implementing its internet service plan. The country's Communications and Information Ministry reiterated the concerns about potential damage to ancient artifacts and expressed fears that the satellite dishes could help looters and antiquities smugglers.

Starlink's internet service works by beaming internet connectivity from satellites to users through small parabolic satellite dishes. Users can set up these dishes virtually anywhere, which is particularly helpful in rural or remote areas that do not have access to traditional internet infrastructure. However, the appearance of these satellite dishes could pose a threat to archaeological sites and monuments that are culturally significant and have been unchanged for thousands of years.

SpaceX has not yet responded to UNESCO's request to reconsider Starlink's operation in Iraq. The agency's concerns reflect a growing struggle between satellite companies looking to provide internet services to underserved areas and cultural heritage experts and governments seeking to protect archaeological sites at risk of damage from the electromagnetic radiation and other threats these satellites pose.

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