Starlink satellites are part of a plan to provide satellite internet access to everyone. Find out how they affect astronomy and stargazing worldwide.
Back in June 2019, we discussed an interesting dilemma that had arisen around light pollution. That’s the problem that astronomers and stargazers have when artificial lights make it harder to see faint objects in the night sky.
The issue was that Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, had launched the first 60 satellites out of a new constellation of 12,000 to enable a new global telecommunications network called Starlink. The idea behind the SpaceX Starlink constellation is to provide high-speed broadband internet services to anyone, anywhere on Earth.
The Starlink mission created a conflict between three things that most people strongly support. Most Dare to Know readers are stargazing enthusiasts, space exploration devotees and unwavering netizens.
Number of Starlink Satellites Could Rise to 42,000
The conflict arises in two ways. The first is that we already have more than 5,000 artificial satellites orbiting the Earth. SpaceX will triple that figure. Not only that, but the number of Starlink satellites could eventually rise to 42,000.
How can SpaceX ensure that this massive quantity of new satellites won’t create a low orbit traffic jam? Elon Musk has assured the public that the satellites include anti-collision sensors.
He has also explained that Starlink satellites will burn up in a decaying orbit when their useful life has ended. Experts are skeptical about both of these claims.
Each Satellite is Clearly Visible on a Dark Night
A more pressing issue is that the Starlink satellites reflect the sun, making them very bright in the night sky. The ones that have been launched so far are as bright as 5.5 magnitude stars, making each satellite clearly visible to the naked eye on a dark night.
Some stargazers enjoy spotting the Starlink satellite train when they’re out admiring the heavens. Professional astronomers aren’t as impressed.
Almost all modern astronomy is done using digital imaging. Real astronomers seldom sit on a little stool, squinting into an eyepiece like in the movies.
Astronomers’ Images Photobombed by a Starlink Satellites
As it stands, most of their images will probably end up photobombed by a Starlink satellite streaking across the frame. This won’t necessarily compromise their work, but it will be irritating.
So, what’s more important, global communications or clear skies? The question at the heart of the issue is, “who owns the night sky?”
Responding to the outcry from professional and amateur astronomers last year, SpaceX set up a working group of leading astronomers from the American Astronomical Society. Their goal was to find ways to reduce the reflected light that Starlink satellites transmit to Earth.
“A Natural Night Sky for All of Us to Enjoy”
In a discussion paper submitted to the National Academy of Sciences, SpaceX stated, “We firmly believe in the importance of a natural night sky for all of us to enjoy.”
The first thing they tried was a coating to make them less reflective. The first coated satellite was nicknamed DarkSat. The film made it 55% darker, but that was still too bright.
Now SpaceX is making more fundamental changes. First, it’s going to adjust the orientation of the satellites during orbit raising on their way to their stations using a roll maneuver to keep the solar panels from reflecting the sun down to Earth.
SpaceX Adding a Visor to Shade the Satellites’ Antennas
In their on-station position, the panels are edge-on to the Earth, making them far less reflective. SpaceX also plans to add a visor to shade the satellites’ highly reflective antennas from sunlight.
In the discussion paper, SpaceX declares that its stated goal is “Making the satellites generally invisible to the naked eye within a week of launch.” It’s a relief to astronomers navigating by the constellations that they won’t have to be confused by satellites.
Brand New State of the Art Vera C. Rubin Observatory
There are also some larger concerns. A brand-new, state of the art telescope system is about to come online in Chile in 2003. It’s called the Vera C. Rubin Observatory.
For the first time, it will allow astronomers to automatically scan the entire night sky every three nights. Astronomers won’t have to book telescope time for their projects anymore.
Instead, the part of the sky they want to study will be available to them on demand. Researchers will simply scroll through the images the way we scroll through the camera roll on our phones.
Any Part of the Sky Available to Astronomers on Demand
Then, they can send that information to every ground-based and space-based telescope in the world within 60 seconds. These other telescopes can then respond by aiming at the identified targets for further study.
As readers can see, the Rubin Observatory will bring the entire field of astronomy into one coordinated network. The issue is that the Starlink satellites could potentially interfere with the observatory’s view. That would send shock ways through the whole global system.
The streaky photobombs from satellites can probably be edited out of most images using advanced algorithms at the Rubin Observatory. Still, computers or astronomers could mistake the streaks for earthbound asteroids or the effects of dark matter.
Could Mistake Photobombs for Asteroids or Dark Matter
The good news is that SpaceX respects the astronomers and seems eager to work with them to find solutions to all of this. As the discussion paper puts it, “We have been working with leading astronomical groups in this effort—in particular, the American Astronomical Society and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory—to better understand the methods and instruments employed by the astronomy community.”
Dr. Patrick Seitzer is a professor of astronomy emeritus at the University of Michigan and a member of the working group advising SpaceX. He described the relationship this way, “The really good news is how cooperative and how aggressive SpaceX has been in trying to fix this problem.”
The consensus seems to be that if the Starlink satellites are sufficiently dark for the Rubin Observatory, they’re dark enough for everybody. As the SpaceX discussion paper puts it, “The Vera C. Rubin Observatory was repeatedly flagged as the most difficult case to solve, so we’ve spent the last few months working very closely with a technical team there to do just that.”
Who Owns the Night Sky?
That’s all very well, but it takes us back to our earlier question. Who owns the night sky?
Elon Musk has a very pro-science mindset, and it permeates the corporate culture at SpaceX. Still, he’s protecting the night sky out of the goodness of his heart, not any formal obligation.
Will other corporations be equally understanding? This isn’t a hypothetical question because other companies have similar projects in mind. SpaceX addresses this, saying, “While SpaceX is the first large constellation manufacturer and operator to address satellite brightness, we won’t be the last.”
UK-Based OneWeb Started Launching Satellites
UK-based OneWeb started launching satellites with the potential to interfere with radio astronomy. They didn’t show the same concern for stakeholders that SpaceX did.
They’ve filed for bankruptcy, but companies, including Amazon, Telesat and Samsung, are all interested in getting into the satellite constellation game.
Despite this new commercial space race, there’s no framework in international law to protect the night sky for science or recreation. Joel Parriott, the Deputy Executive Officer at the American Astronomical Society, told the New York Times, “It’s the Wild West in optical astronomy.”
“It’s the Wild West in Optical Astronomy”
New frontiers don’t have to be settled like the Wild West. In contrast to the lawless, every man for himself American approach, the global community could approach the satellite industry like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
There’s no reason we can’t move the law in first before the settlers arrive, the way Canada settled its western territories. By that, I mean countries could work out regulations through the United Nations before SpaceX, OneWeb, or anybody else launches any more satellites.
SpaceX has already committed to better design standards saying, “SpaceX is committed to making future satellite designs as dark as possible.” There’s no reason that these standards couldn’t be codified into an international standard.
The Night Sky is a Natural Legacy
That would ensure a collaborative approach, meeting stakeholder needs without depending on the benevolence of billionaires. The night sky is a natural legacy that everyone on Earth is entitled to study and enjoy.
Human culture is based on stories. Many of those stories arose from studying the stars. Seneca said, “Our universe is a sorry little affair unless it has in it something for every age to investigate.”
We owe it to future generations to ensure that they get their chance to investigate the night sky and create their own science-based stories. Our understanding of the universe, nature and ourselves has come from passing on knowledge from one generation to the next.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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