18 August 2019

The New York Times: “After SpaceX Starlink Launch, a Fear of Satellites that outnumber All Visible Stars”

Alex Parker, a planetary astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute, noted on Twitter that if nearly 12,000 of these satellites orbit, they could soon outnumber all of the stars visible to the naked eye. And even if just 500 are observable at any given time, Dr. Drimmel warns that it will be difficult to pick out constellations among those moving lights.

It sounds dystopian, Dr. Casey said.

Most of the frustration stems from the fact that discussions about the impact of this project did not take place before launch. And it may only be the beginning.

It truly is the tip of the iceberg, especially as we get into a world where you have multibillionaires with the ability and the desire to do things like this, Dr. Nordgren said.

Shannon Hall

Speaking of irresponsible behavior in space, let’s not forget about Elon Musk, a prime example of arrogance and irresponsibility. Two months ago, SpaceX started launching satellites for the Starlink constellation to build their space-based Internet service and… astronomers were outraged at the implications. And I have to admit, I was as well! No matter the benefits in connecting the poorer and more remote areas of the world, the fact is it’s a unilateral decision by a company (one can even say one man!) that will reap all the profits, while the rest of the world has to deal with the consequences.

There are three possible down-sides to such a massive satellite constellation. The most immediate and palpable would be changing the night sky completely, if the satellites are indeed as bright as some people calculated, making actual stars a minority among the light sources. Not to mention there are a number of other companies planning to launch their own competing satellite constellations, from Amazon to OneWeb and Telesat.

This would naturally pose major problems for ground-based astronomical observations, both in visible light and in radio frequencies. Since then, Elon Musk has made some reassurances that the company will address the satellite design to minimize the impact on astronomy, but I wouldn’t put much credence in his Twitter remarks. What if nobody had raised these concerns now, in the test phase? Or, worse still, what happens if SpaceX goes bankrupt halfway through the required launches? The world gets stuck with a non-functioning swarm of satellites, polluting the sky with light and radio emissions, while nobody benefits from improved Internet access.

The most damaging in the long term though is the threat of space debris. As satellites malfunction, they can end up on collision courses with other satellites, leading to the creation of thousands of fragments, flying around in Earth orbit, endangering other satellites and launches. This can become a complicated problem to manage if we start allowing private companies to launch just about anything they want into Earth orbit. I don’t expect them to be responsible enough to coordinate to prevent accidental collisions between their satellites. Without clear plans on how to minimize the risk of debris, I think the launch permits should be carefully considered and kept to a minimum.

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