June 3 2019

After SpaceX Starlink Launch, Fear of Satellites Outnumbering All Visible Stars

Last month, SpaceX successfully launched 60 500-pound satellites into space. Soon amateur skywatchers started sharing images of those satellites in…

Last month, SpaceX successfully launched 60 500-pound satellites into space. Soon amateur skywatchers started sharing images of those satellites in night skies, igniting an uproar among astronomers who fear that the planned orbiting cluster will wreak havoc on scientific research and trash our view of the cosmos.

The main issue is that those 60 satellites are merely a drop in the bucket. SpaceX anticipates launching thousands of satellites — creating a mega-constellation of false stars collectively called Starlink that will connect the entire planet to the internet, and introduce a new line of business for the private spaceflight company.

While astronomers agree that global internet service is a worthy goal, the satellites are bright — too bright.

“This has the potential to change what a natural sky looks like,” said Tyler Nordgren, an astronomer who is now working full-time to promote night skies.

And SpaceX is not alone. Other companies, such as Amazon, Telesat and OneWeb, want to get into the space internet business. Their ambitions to make satellites nearly as plentiful as cellphone towers highlight conflicting debates as old as the space age about the proper use of the final frontier.

While private companies see major business opportunities in low-Earth orbit and beyond, many skygazers fear that space will no longer be “the province of all mankind,” as stated in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

Each of the satellites carries a solar panel that not only gathers sunlight but also reflects it back to Earth. Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and chief executive, has offered assurances that the satellites will only be visible in the hours after sunset and before sunrise, and then just barely.

But the early images led many scientists to question his assertions.

The first captured images, for example, revealed a train of spacecraft as bright as Polaris, the North Star. And while a press officer at SpaceX said the satellites will grow fainter as they move to higher orbits, some astronomers estimate that they will be visible to the naked eye throughout summer nights.

The satellites can even “flare,” briefly boosting their brightness to rival that of Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, when their solar panels are oriented just right.

Astronomers fear that these reflections will threaten stargazing and their research. (Read More)