A group of senior astronomers has issued a statement of concern regarding new-generation communications satellites currently being deployed by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX.
Musk’s company has plans to launch a staggering 12,000 of the vehicles, known as Starlink satellites, to form the infrastructure of a bold attempt to provide a global broadband internet service. The resulting constellation will also be made available – for a fee – for research and military purposes.
The first 60 Starlinks were launched in late May 2019, in a spectacular convoy that both prompted a flurry of UFO reports – and raised serious concerns among space scientists.
An issue for the astronomers is the reflectivity of the resulting constellations. Previously SpaceX had assured scientists that the Starlinks would be barely visible. However, the initial tranche of satellites was much more reflective than anticipated.
The objects, say researchers, could end up disrupting both ground- and space-based observations.
Megan Donahue of the Michigan State University, US, head of the American Astronomical Society, says Musk’s fleet, together with those of likely competitors using similar tech, could end up outnumbering the stars visible in the night sky.
“I think it’s commendable and very impressive engineering to spread the information and opportunities made possible by internet access,” says Donahue, “but I, like many astronomers, am very worried about the future of these new bright satellites.”
At its annual meeting held recently in St. Louis, Missouri, the AAS Board of Trustees went so far as to issue a formal statement noting “with concern” the impending deployment of tens of thousands of Starlink-style satellites in the coming few years.
The craft, the scientists warned, could create “substantial adverse effects” for astronomy, not limited to just the distractions of more bright lights in the sky.
“These impacts could include significant disruption of optical and near-infrared observations by direct detection of satellites in reflected and emitted light,” the trustees stated, “contamination of radio astronomical observations by electromagnetic radiation in satellite communication bands; and collision with space-based observatories.”
Donahue and colleagues called for an ongoing, collaborative effort among AAS scientists and those at research organisations around the world to achieve a “thorough and quantitative understanding” of the satellite constellations before too many more are launched.
The astronomers also made the strong point that although they, as scientists, cannot make an exclusive claim to the visual properties of the sky, neither can Musk or his competitors.
“The natural night sky is a resource not just for astronomers but for all who look upward to understand and enjoy the splendour of the universe, and its degradation has many negative impacts beyond the astronomical,” says Jeffrey Hall of Lowell Observatory in the US.
“I appreciate the initial conversation we have already had with SpaceX, and I look forward to working with my AAS colleagues and with all stakeholders to understand and mitigate the effects of the rapidly increasing numbers of satellites in near-Earth orbit.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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