A total of 420 of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites are now in low Earth orbit, promising new internet-from-space services, but leaving many astronomers aghast.
Cast your eyes up to the night sky in these pollution-free times here in Europe and you may very well see a train of satellites cruising across the stars.
They are visible without any special equipment, a distinct succession of lights against the blackness. These objects are the beginnings of the Starlink constellation, a privately-owned venture from Elon Musk’s SpaceX company promising to offer high-quality internet connections from space.
The latest launch, on 22nd April, saw 60 satellites placed into orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket, bringing the total aloft to 420, enough to start the roll-out of basic services. It’s not entirely clear how many Starlink satellites will be launched, although it could rise to above 12,000 – enough for astronomers to see red.
Self destruct button?
German amateur astrophotographer Marcel Nowaczyk told Euronews: “From my point of view it is frustrating when you have to delete 25 per cent of your pictures during an imaging session. I’m a bit afraid of our future view of the night sky when there are 10,000 of them in orbit.”
Nowaczyk tweeted that he wished the satellites had some kind of ‘self-destruction inside’. Long-exposure photographs are the bread and butter of astrophotographers, and Starlink tends to leave large white lines right across their pictures. Some are enjoying the spectacle, others are not.
‘Brighter than every star in the sky’
Professor Mark McCaughrean, Senior Advisor for Science and Exploration at the European Space Agency (ESA) told Euronews: “I have to admit that personally, they make me nauseous. They just keep coming for many minutes, endlessly crossing the sky, drawing the eye’s attention, and occasionally flaring brighter than every star in the sky to boot.”
Starlink needs so many satellites because the system hands over connectivity between the spacecraft as they fly overhead, meaning faster speeds for customers on the ground.
The first phase will see around 1,600 satellites flying at 550 kilometres in altitude. Compare that to the far less numerous geostationary satellites delivering television signals to Earth from a point 36,000 kilometres away – certainly not something you’ll easily spot with your binoculars at night.
Musk’s firm isn’t alone in this emerging market, either. A similar plan from fellow tech billionaire Jeff Bezos involves over 3,200 internet-from-space satellites under the name Project Kuiper.
SpaceX is aware of the astronomers’ concerns and says it’s addressing them with anti-reflective surfaces on newer satellites – in short, it will paint them black – and what’s described as a ‘sunshade’ to reduce the reflection from satellites in the future.
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell from the Centre for Astrophysics (Harvard & Smithsonian) said he was “concerned about the potential that large numbers of bright satellites could both ruin professional observations and affect the look of the night sky”.
However he told us he was “encouraged by the measures that SpaceX are now taking to reduce that impact – they have clearly been listening to our concerns”.
Taking away ‘the birthright of all who live on this planet’
Other leading astronomers are taking it more personally, and aren’t afraid to say so.
Euronews reached Carolyn Porco, former imaging team leader on the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn and visiting scholar at University of California at Berkeley,
“These developments and what could follow will ruin the night sky … not just for those engaged in the scientific study of the cosmos but for those of us who find in its glory solace, perspective, and the meaning of one’s life.
It is the only sight to gaze upon that is 13.8 billion years old. You rob us of that, you’ve taken away the birthright of all who live on this planet,” she wrote.
The risk of in-orbit collision
Longer-term the reflectivity issue that now makes Starlink so easy to spot may be partially overcome, but experts including Porco are still concerned about the risk of collision posed by a massive privately-run constellation in such a crowded orbital zone.
The ‘final frontier’ of space isn’t so empty these days, at least near Earth, with about 1,500 active satellites, 2,200 defunct satellites and, according to ESA, millions of tiny fragments of space debris in orbit.
Adding tens of thousands of new satellites to crowded orbital pathways is considered a serious future hazard, especially given that the space sector is largely self-regulating, and some pieces of space junk have just been abandoned to spin out of control.
Porco said there are “insufficient plans for what to do in the event of a collision, or in the event that one of the owners goes bankrupt and can no longer direct his many assets.”
It’s a concern shared by Dutch space debris expert Dr Marco Langbroek, who messaged to say that he is concerned about space safety as future Starlink launches loom.
“The sight of those passing in file over a ~20-minute timespan, 5-8 of them visible at the same time, almost looks like Science Fiction: the Mothership unloading the invasion fleet,” he joked.