Astronomers call for urgent action on Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites over fears the SpaceX broadband network will blot out the night sky
- SpaceX launched an artificial constellation of broadband-providing satellites
- They were spotted orbiting the Earth on May 24 – just one day after deployment
- SpaceX plans to up the number of Starlink satellites from 60 to 12,000 by 2025
- Astronomers fear that it will increasingly hinder their studies of the night sky
- International Astronomical Union has now issued a warning over the network
Experts have condemned the launch of Elon Musk’s Starlink project over fears it will blot out the night sky and make scientific research more difficult.
A network of 60 communications satellites was sent into orbit around the Earth aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on on May 23.
The craft are the first in a planned fleet of 12,000 such objects, designed to provide high speed internet connections to homes and businesses back on the surface.
Researchers and other concerned parties took to social media in the days after the launch to express their concerns.
Now an international panel of astronomers founded in 1919 that now has 13,527 members has issued their warning over the stunt.
They say that the Starlink project, and others like it, will lead to light pollution – in the form of streaks that can already be observed from here on Earth.
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Experts have condemned the launch of Elon Musk’s Starlink project over fears it will blot out the night sky and make scientific research difficult. They say that the Starlink project will lead to light pollution – in the form of streaks that can be observed from here on Earth (pictured)
The International Astronomical Union (IAU), based in Paris, issued the warning via a statement on the organisation’s website. It highlighted two leading concerns over satellite relays like Musk’s – and their impact on observations of the universe taking place on Earth
The International Astronomical Union (IAU), based in Paris, issued the warning via a statement on the organisation’s website.
It highlighted two leading concerns over such satellite relays and their impact on observations of the universe taking place on Earth.
It states that the surfaces of such satellites are often made of highly reflective metal. Reflections from the sun before dawn and after dusk make them appear as slow-moving dots in the night sky.
Most of these reflections may be so faint that they are hard to pick out with the naked eye, experts say.
But they can be detrimental to the sensitive capabilities of large ground-based astronomical telescopes, they warn.
Secondly, radio signals emitted from the satellite constellations can threaten astronomical observations conducted using radio wavelengths.
Recent advances in radio astronomy – such as producing the first image of a black hole or understanding more about the formation of planetary systems – were only possible through concerted efforts in safeguarding the radio sky from interference.
Writing in the statement, a spokesman for the IAU said: ‘Over the past decades, considerable effort has gone into designing, building, and deploying satellites for many important purposes.
‘Recently networks, known as satellite constellations, have been deployed and are planned in ever greater numbers in mainly low-Earth orbits for a variety of purposes.
‘We urge their designers and deployers as well as policy-makers to work with the astronomical community in a concerted effort to analyse and understand the impact of satellite constellations.
‘We also urge appropriate agencies to devise a regulatory framework to mitigate or eliminate the detrimental impacts on scientific exploration as soon as practical,
‘We strongly recommend that all stakeholders in this new and largely unregulated frontier of space utilisation work collaboratively to their mutual advantage.’
Researchers fear that SpaceX’s artificial constellation of broadband-providing satellites (pictured) could increasingly spoil views of the night sky and hinder astronomy
University of Alabama astronomer Bill Keel told the AFP on May 29 that experts were already trying to work out what effect the artificial constellation will have.
He said: ‘In 20 years or less, for a good part the night anywhere in the world, the human eye would see more satellites than stars.’
The brightness of the satellites has since dimmed as they ascended to their final orbiting altitude, around 340 miles (550 kilometres) above the Earth’s surface.
This has not entirely allayed the scientific community’s concerns, however.
There are further fears over how views of the night sky will be impacted when SpaceX increases the number of orbiting satellites over the next five years.
There are currently 2,100 active satellites orbiting our planet, according to the Satellite Industry Association.
SpaceX is not the only company looking to enter the burgeoning space internet market.
If Musk’s firm adds another 12,000 satellites, there ‘will be hundreds above the horizon at any given time,’ Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher Jonathan McDowell told AFP.
This issue will be exacerbated at specific times of the year and during certain points in the nighttime, he noted.
‘It’ll certainly be dramatic in the night sky if you’re far away from the city and you have a nice, dark area.’ Dr McDowell added:
‘It’ll definitely cause problems for some kinds of professional astronomical observation.’
Elon Musk’s Starlink project recently placed 60 satellites in low-Earth orbit as they look to beam high-speed internet down to the Earth’s surface, but plans envisage increasing the artificial constellation to 12,000 satellites by 2025
Musk offered contradictory messages on Twitter in response to such concerns.
Despite reporting he had already taken steps to investigate ways to reduce the reflectivity of the Starlink satellites, Musk also said that ‘Starlink won’t be seen by anyone unless looking very carefully’.
The satellite constellation ‘will have ~0% impact on advancements in astronomy’ and we ‘need to move telescopes to orbit anyway,’ he added.
While SpaceX cares ‘a great deal about science’, the work to give ‘billions of economically disadvantaged people’ high-speed internet access through the Starlink network ‘is the greater good,’ he wrote.
Responding to Mr Musk’s comments, Professor Keel said that he was happy that the SpaceX CEO had offered to look into ways to reduce the reflectivity of future satellites, but questioned why the issue had not been addressed before.
If optical astronomers are concerned, then their radio astronomy colleagues are ‘in near despair,’ Professor Keel added.
Radio astronomers rely on the electromagnetic waves emitted by celestial objects to examine cosmic phenomena — such as the black hole that was imaged last month.
So-called ‘side emissions’ generated by satellite operators can interfere with the observation bands that radio astronomers are looking out for if not adequately mitigated.
‘There’s every reason to join our radio astronomy colleagues in calling for a “before” response,’ said Professor Keel.
‘It’s not just safeguarding our professional interests but, as far as possible, protecting the night sky for humanity.’
Amateur astronomer Marco Langbroek caught footage of dozens of miniature satellites from SpaceX’s Starlink project traversing their new orbit around Earth.
In the video, shot from the Netherlands, the satellites — which appear as a string of consecutive lights — can be seen flying through the night sky a little more than a day after they were launched.
A blog post from Dr Langbroek detailed the amateur astronomer’s excitement as the satellites entered his camera’s field of view.
‘It started with two faint, flashing objects moving into the field of view,’ he wrote.
‘Then, a few tens of seconds later, my jaw dropped as the “train” entered the field of view. I could not help shouting “OAAAAAH!!!!” (followed by a few expletives…).’
The scientific community is concerned about how views of the night sky will be impacted with SpaceX’s plans to increase the number of orbiting satellites from 60 to 12,000 over the next five years (Pictured: a Falcon 9 rocket carries Starlink satellites into orbit on May 23, 2019)
To time the satellites voyage and get the video, Dr Langbroek said he calculated the instruments’ orbit himself.
‘There were no orbital elements for the objects available yet on Space-Track, but based on the orbital information (53 degree inclination, initially 440 km orbital altitude) I had calculated a search orbit and stood ready with my camera,’ he wrote in a post.
‘My search orbit turned out to be not too bad: very close in sky track, and with the objects passing some 3 minutes early on the predictions. And what a SPECTACULAR view it was!’
While Dr Langbroek set up his camera in anticipation of viewing the satellites, other stargazers weren’t anticipating the spectacle, causing an outpouring of UFO claims.
Following the fly-by dutch UFO website www.ufomeldpunt.nl was flooded with reports.
‘There’s a long line of lights. Faster than a plane. Huh?’ said one poster.
‘Bizarre train of stars or lights moving across the skies at constant speed,’ posted another.
In a report by dutch outlet, NOS, one witness said he was concerned the lights were an attack.
‘I didn’t know what to think,’ said an eye-witness who saw the lights go over The Hague reports NOS. ‘Is Russia attacking America? Are they UFOs? I really didn’t know.’
WHAT IS STARLINK AND WHAT ARE ITS GOALS?
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched the first two of its ‘Starlink’ space internet satellites.
They are the first in a constellation of thousands of satellites, designed to provide low-cost broadband internet service from low Earth orbit.
The constellation, informally known as Starlink, and under development at SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond, Washington.
Its goal is to beam superfast internet into your home from space.
While satellite internet has been around for a while, it has suffered from high latency and unreliable connections.
Starlink is different. SpaceX says putting a ‘constellation’ of satellites in low earth orbit would provide high-speed, cable-like internet all over the world.
The billionaire’s company wants to create the global system to help it generate more cash.
Musk has previously said the venture could give three billion people who currently do not have access to the internet a cheap way of getting online.
It could also help fund a future city on Mars.
Helping humanity reach the red planet is one of Musk’s long-stated aims and was what inspired him to start SpaceX.
The company recently filed plans with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 4,425 satellites into orbit above the Earth – three times as many that are currently in operation.
‘Once fully deployed, the SpaceX system will pass over virtually all parts of the Earth’s surface and therefore, in principle, have the ability to provide ubiquitous global service,’ the firm said.
‘Every point on the Earth’s surface will see, at all times, a SpaceX satellite.’
The network will provide internet access to the US and the rest of the world, it added.
It is expected to take more than five years and $9.8 billion (£7.1bn) of investment, although satellite internet has proved an expensive market in the past and analysts expect the final bill will be higher.
Musk compared the project to ‘rebuilding the internet in space’, as it would reduce reliance on the existing network of undersea fibre-optic cables which criss-cross the planet.
In the US, the FCC welcomed the scheme as a way to provide internet connections to more people.