After SpaceX Starlink Launch, a Fear of Satellites That Outnumber All Visible Stars – Smart Media Magazine

After SpaceX Starlink Launch, a Fear of Satellites That Outnumber All Visible Stars


Last month, SpaceX successfully launched 60 500-pound satellites into space. Soon amateur skywatchers started sharing images of those satellites in night skies, igniting an uproar among astronomers who fear that the planned orbiting cluster will wreak havoc on scientific research and trash our view of the cosmos.

The main issue is that those 60 satellites are merely a drop in the bucket. SpaceX anticipates launching thousands of satellites — creating a mega-constellation of false stars collectively called Starlink that will connect the entire planet to the internet, and introduce a new line of business for the private spaceflight company.

While astronomers agree that global internet service is a worthy goal, the satellites are bright — too bright.

“This has the potential to change what a natural sky looks like,” said Tyler Nordgren, an astronomer who is now working full-time to promote night skies.

Whenever a satellite passes through a long-exposure picture of the sky, it causes a long bright streak — typically ruining the image and forcing astronomers to take another one. While telescope operators have dealt with these headaches for years, Starlink alone could triple the number of satellites currently in orbit, with the number growing larger if other companies get to space.

One estimate suggests that the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope — an 8.4-meter telescope under construction on a Chilean mountaintop that will soon scan the entire sky — might have to deal with one to four Starlink satellites in every image during the first few hours of twilight.

And astronomers don’t yet know how they will adjust. “We’re really at that point where we have to assess what we’re going to do,” said Ronald Drimmel, an astronomer at the Turin Astrophysical Observatory in Italy.

Not only do these satellites reflect light, they also emit radio frequencies — which a number of astronomers find troubling. Dishes used in radio astronomy are often built in remote locations far from cell towers and radio stations. But if Starlink is launched in full — with the ability to beam reception toward any location on the planet — those so-called radio quiet zones might become a thing of the past.

Moreover, some are worried that Starlink plans to operate on two frequency ranges that astronomers use to map the gas throughout the universe — allowing them to see how planets as large as Jupiter assemble, and how galaxies formed immediately after the Big Bang.

“What I find astounding is that whatever we do will affect everyone on the planet,” Dr. Drimmel said.

Alex Parker, a planetary astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute, noted on Twitter that if these satellites orbit in the thousands, they could soon outnumber all of the stars visible to the naked eye. And even if just 500 are observable at any given time, Dr. Drimmel warns that it will be difficult to pick out constellations among those moving lights.

“It sounds dystopian,” Dr. Casey said.

Most of the frustration stems from the fact that discussions about the impact of this project did not take place before launch. And it may only be the beginning.

“It truly is the tip of the iceberg, especially as we get into a world where you have multibillionaires with the ability and the desire to do things like this,” Dr. Nordgren said.

So astronomers are hopeful that today’s conversation might shape the future. “I think it’s good that we’re making noise about this problem,” Dr. Drimmel said. “If we’re not aware of the threat, so to speak, this will all happen as planned and then it will be too late.

Already, Mr. Musk has asked SpaceX to work on lowering future satellites’ brightness.

And other companies seem to be taking note. A press officer at Amazon said that it will be years before Project Kuiper — the company’s plan to place more than 3,000 internet satellites into orbit — is available. But Amazon will assess space safety and concerns about light pollution as they design their satellites, the press officer said.

Another entrant, Telesat, said its smaller constellation would operate at higher orbits than some companies’ satellites, making their satellites fainter.

“Who has the right to decide that?” Dr. Nordgren asked. “And do we all agree that that trade-off is one that we’re all willing to make?”

The night sky has the power to make people feel awe, he said.

“A star-filled night sky reminds us that we are part of a much larger whole, that we are one person in a world of people surrounded by the vast depths of the visible universe,” Dr. Nordgren said.

While they may see Starlink’s goal as worthy, scientists question whether it is truly the greater good.

“I’m sure there will be positive impact in terms of bringing the internet to the world, but just blatantly saying as one person or one company that this takes precedence over our knowledge of our own universe is scary,” Dr. Casey said.

Ultimately, many agree that the risks are far too great for this decision to be made by one company. And Dr. Casey is hopeful that SpaceX will take a cooperative approach with major astronomy organizations.

“The idea that one or two people somewhere in some country in some boardroom can make the decision that the constellations hereafter will suddenly be fluid, and move from night to night and hour to hour — well, I don’t think that’s their decision to make,” Dr. Nordgren said.



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