An artist’s depiction of space junk. (Credit: ESA)

SpaceX’s ambitious Starlink
project could eventually launch more than 10,000 satellites into orbit and
rewrite the future of the internet. But Elon Musk’s company has been taking
heat from the astronomical community after an initial launch in late May
released the first 60 satellites. The  500
pound (227 kg) satellites were clearly visible in
Earth
’s night sky,
inspiring concern that they could increase light pollution, interfere with
radio signals, and contribute to the growing issue of space debris.

This week, the American
Astronomical Society, the International Astronomical Union, the British Royal
Astronomical Society, and the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) all issued statements
expressing concern about Starlink’s potential to damage astronomical research
by leaving bright streaks through images.

“The Starlink affair has
raised the attention of the astronomy community in a way that I’ve not seen
during my couple of decades in it,” says John Barentine, director of public
policy at the IDA, which lobbies against light pollution. “I hope that this
moment is the wake-up call that is needed to prompt a new discussion in the
international community about the nature of outer space, especially near the
Earth, in a commercial context.”

Musk had repeatedly
assured people on Twitter that his satellites wouldn’t be visible
at night, so the light caught some people by surprise. However, the satellites’
initial brightness is intended to wane as they climb higher into their
permanent orbits.

“The observability of
the Starlink satellites is dramatically reduced as they raise orbit to greater
distance and orient themselves with the phased array antennas toward Earth and
their solar arrays behind the body of the satellite,” a spokesperson for SpaceX
said in an email.

Telescopes at Lowell Observatory in Arizona captured this image of galaxies on May 25, their images marred by the reflected light from more than 25 Starlink satellites as they passed overhead. (Credit: Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory)

But Barentine and other
astronomers aren’t so sure, especially given that this is only the beginning
for Starlink. Plus, many other
companies — including Amazon, Boeing, OneWeb, Telesat, LeoSat, and even Facebook
— are planning other so-called “mega-constellations” for connecting the masses
online.

“There are billions of people around the world who lack access to broadband internet,” a spokesperson for Amazon’s Project Kuiper said in an email. “Our vision is to provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to many of these unserved and underserved communities around the world … Many of our satellite and mission design decisions are, and will continue to be, driven by our goals of ensuring space safety and taking into account concerns about light pollution.”

But there are already 22,000 artificial objects currently in orbit. And as the microlaunch space race kicks into high gear, that number is destined to double. Communications satellites aren’t the only things headed up, either. One group even proposed launching orbiting billboards that would shine ads back down to Earth. And an artist recently launched the “Humanity Star” – a purely artistic light beacon.

“Space is already
crowded, and roughly doubling the number of objects in low- and near-Earth
orbit will only add to the visual pollution of the night sky,” Barentine says.
“Being in a dark place and seeing one satellite fly over every few minutes is
one thing. But seeing literally dozens of them at any given time for hours
every night is another story entirely.”

Part of the reason this
problem stands to get worse, according to astrophysicist Laura Forczyk, is
“there is no regulatory body in the United States that directs companies as to
the kind of light pollution or the brightness of satellites. This is a fairly
new topic and as always the government regulations are behind technology.”

But Forczyk, owner of
the space consulting firm Astralytical, also says that changing the night skies
isn’t the same thing as losing the night sky — and it’s a little too early to
know what the total impact is going to be. After all, the Starlink satellites
still haven’t reached their final orbit. “We’re very reactive when it comes to
these kinds of things,” she says, but emphasizes miscommunication from both
sides.

Whether the problem
stands to worsen or not, most experts see the growth of these mega-constellations
as inevitable.

“I don’t think we’re
going to be able to create political will to stop the satellites because there
is so much commercial potential and politicians tend to respond to economics,”
says Phil Metzger, a planetary scientist at the University of Central Florida
and a former NASA physicist. However, he says future designs of satellites can
ensure they’ll cause less interference with on-the-ground astronomy.

“We can change the
surface of the spacecraft so it is more absorptive and less reflective or we
can even make it more transparent,” Metzger says. “We do have the ability to
make electrical conductors completely transparent so we don’t need metal. You
could have glass with transparent conductors in the glass … I think we’ll
probably be doing all of these things in the future.”



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