When mankind first stared up at the stars, they made up stories about bears, archers, crabs, and Gods. Now when people look up at the stars, they see more possibilities. Some think “we ought to have some kind of planetary defense system up there.” Other people think “can satellites make the internet better?” And some wonder, “why don’t we have a moon base yet?” Well, we’re making progress on these things.
A few weeks ago we reported on the first wave Starlink satellites launched into orbit. Starlink is SpaceX’s venture to bring low-latency broadband internet to unserved or underserved areas around the globe. SpaceX overcame plenty of obstacles leading up to that launch, but even now with the first sixty satellites in orbit, Starlink is facing criticism over the impact of cluttering the sky with false stars.
Earlier this week, SpaceX had a different kind of launch — a new website for Starlink, which details what it is and how it works. The site says that after just six launches, Starlink should be able to provide coverage to the Northern US and Canada. By the twenty-fourth launch, Starlink will have about fifteen hundred satellites in orbit to provide internet to the populated world. The end goal is around twelve thousand satellites circling the Earth. By the end of this year alone, SpaceX is aiming to have up to six launches completed. With a plan to launch sixty satellites every six to eight weeks, even if they can’t hit six launches by the end of 2019, the amount of coverage Starlink would provide in 2020 puts them way ahead of most competitors.
As we’ve mentioned before, OneWeb is still currently the closest competition to Starlink, but Amazon’s Project Kuiper, Telesat, and Leosat are two to five years away from launching their satellites. When their internet services will be available is not yet clear, but it’s going to take a while. At that point, the sky is going to be FILLED with false stars. Astronomers already have beef with Starlink, raising questions over the ethics of a single company, let alone a handful of companies, changing the appearance of the sky.
The night after the Starlink launch, amateur astronomer Marco Langbrook captured footage from the Netherlands of the train of satellites taking orbit around the Earth. According to Forbes, Langbrook said, “What I had not anticipated was how bright the objects were and how spectacular a view it would be. It really was an incredible and bizarre view to see that whole train of objects in a line moving across the sky.”
Astronomers have raised questions about how the constellations of satellites will affect ground-based astronomy and add congestion to the orbital environment. A portion of the satellites will operate at or close to the frequencies radio astronomers use to study the cosmos. According to National Geographic, Lise van Zee, chair of the National Academy of Science’s Committee on Radio Frequencies, or CORF, said: “As a general principle, radio astronomy facilities are particularly vulnerable to satellite downlinks and to airborne uses, as radio telescopes cannot be protected from high-altitude transmissions through geographical shielding alone.” van Zee says that a coordination agreement regarding Starlink is in the works to balance the interests of science and telecom companies. Although both SpaceX and OneWeb are working out these agreements with the National Science Foundation and National Radio Astronomy Observatory, Harvey List of the NRAO says they keep changing the parameters of their satellites without updating them.
Beyond radio astronomy, visual astronomers will have to deal with the satellites crossing through their research images. Musk has said before these satellites will barely be noticeable, but a few days after the launch, Musk addressed the Starlink team about reducing the reflectivity, tweeting that he “sent a note to Starlink team last week specifically regarding albedo reduction. We’ll get a better sense of the value of this when satellites have raised orbits & arrays are tracking to sun.”
The actual impact of Starlink isn’t known yet, but astronomers are preparing for streaky skies. There are currently about five thousand satellites orbiting the planet so astronomers have dealt with the occasional satellite before, but the amount is about to increase dramatically over the next few years. Starlink alone is going to triple the number. At night, the satellites are likely not going to be visible, because they will be in darkness with no sunlight to reflect, but before sunrise and after sunset, the thousands of satellites will be visible. When Starlink satellites flare their solar arrays to the right angle, the sunlight reflected toward the earth boosts their brightness close to the levels of Venus or Jupiter. Bruce Macintosh from Stanford University noted that one of the major telescopes projects of the next ten years, called the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will probably have anywhere between one and four Starlink satellites in each image within an hour or two of twilight.
In response to the concerns of cluttering the night sky, Musk tweeted, that the satellites will be in darkness when the stars are visible. He also pointed out, “there are already forty-nine hundred satellites in orbit, which people notice around zero percent of the time. Starlink won’t be seen by anyone unless looking very carefully & will have around zero impact on advancements in astronomy. We need to move telescopes to orbit anyway. Atmospheric attenuation is terrible.”
Some pointed out that helping the billions of people without internet access is worth the price of seeing the satellites twice a day. Musk agreed, tweeting “Potentially helping billions of economically disadvantaged people is the greater good. That said, we’ll make sure Starlink has no material effect on discoveries in astronomy. We care a great deal about science.” He also entertained the idea of sending Starlink telescopes into space as well.