Could SpaceX’s Plans for Universal Internet Ruin Astronomy?



SpaceX recently launched its first batch of
60 satellites into low-Earth orbit, getting us one step closer to global internet coverage. Dubbed Starlink, this program will eventually
form a mega constellation of nearly 12,000 satellites hovering about 550km above Earth. But as the twinkling post-launch satellite
train moved its way across the sky, astronomers across the globe watched and wondered—are these things always going to be so…bright? Many astronomers fear that Starlink will interfere
with scientific observations. Starlink’s solar-powered, roughly 225kg
satellites communicate with one another through optical and radio links, and connect with
ground terminals that can operate from pretty much anywhere. These satellites are expected to dramatically
improve data transfer speeds and connectivity compared with existing technologies, like
Iridium satellites, of which there are currently 66 in active orbit. Starlink is also poised to drastically improve
bandwidth—potentially surpassing fiber optics—and reduce latency, or lag, which will be great
for industries that rely on getting information fast. And the biggest selling point here? Internet for all. That’s great news! But what about the risks of Starlink cluttering
our night sky? Roughly 5,000 satellites currently crowd Earth’s
immediate environment, and Starlink is set to nearly triple that number. So astronomers aren’t exactly starstruck with this idea. In recent statements, astronomical groups
strongly recommended that a regulatory framework be developed to address a number of new challenges
posed by the potential increase in satellite bodies. As the plan currently stands, some of the
satellites will utilize frequencies neighboring those that radio astronomers use to study
the sky. This interference could make it tricky for
ground-based instruments, like the Event Horizon Telescope, to clearly view distant objects
in space. I mean if it hadn’t been for a sky free of radio interference, researchers may never have captured our first image of a black hole. And then there’s the problem of all the
light that Starlink generates. Like Iridium satellites, they can “flare”
by throwing bursts of reflected sunlight back from their solar arrays down toward Earth. Flares aside, it’s suggested that the satellites
will also be consistently bright. Initial estimates of the satellites’ visibility
suggested they’d sit at an apparent magnitude just slightly dimmer than the North star. While updated reports indicate that they’ll
now sit within a lower magnitude range of about 5 to 7, and this suggests that Starlink
will remain visible to the naked eye. And all that satellite contamination really
adds up. These reflective objects could confuse sensitive
optical telescopes designed to survey the entire sky, like the Large Synoptic Survey
Telescope in Chile. Once all 12,000 satellites are in orbit, estimates
say up to four Starlink satellites will likely appear in every single one of the telescope’s
images in the hours approaching twilight. Musk has said that they’ll need at least
“six more launches of 60 satellites” for minor coverage. Each satellite is designed to only last for
a few years, dropping from the wider Starlink array and burning up upon entry into Earth’s
atmosphere. And that’s just it. With Starlink’s satellites in space, traffic
increases—and the risk of satellite collisions goes up, too. Collisions pose a national security threat,
and current guidelines to safely manage orbiting objects are pretty flimsy. If a collision does occur, it would add to
the already half a million pieces of space junk present in Earth’s orbit. And in response to all this, Elon Musk has focused
on the need for internet access for all, and that “we need to move telescopes to orbit
anyway.” But where does that leave astronomers who
don’t have the ability to travel into space on a whim? Or even those of us who just love to stargaze? Space is basically a regulatory wild west,
which presents a whole lot of unknowns for us here on Earth. To address astronomers' worries that communication
satellites could ruin their careers, SpaceX has been working with the National Science Foundation and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to try and keep observations clear of any disturbance. It’s also announced plans to redesign the
next Starlink batch to appear less bright. But SpaceX isn’t the only company casting
an Internet into the galactic sea. OneWeb launched a fleet of comms satellites
earlier this year, and is also working on ways to reduce radio frequency interference
and low-Earth orbit clutter. Canadian company Telestat promises to operate
its satellites at higher orbits so they’ll appear fainter. Amazon, too, is quietly developing tech for
its own Project Kuiper. As the market for space real estate heats
up, projects like Starlink are destined to become more common. Close collaboration between astronomers and
these companies will be essential to keep internet connections strong and our observations
of the sky clear. Because after all, astronomers are kind of
like our very own guardians of the galaxy. So what do you think, is it time to move astronomy
into space, or figure out a way to move satellites away from Earth? Let us know in the comments below, and don’t
forget to subscribe for more Seeker. I’ll see you next time, thanks for watching.

47 thoughts on “Could SpaceX’s Plans for Universal Internet Ruin Astronomy?

  1. Must everyone really have Internet? Look at how it's turned so many into drones. 5% of Musk's initial launch group already failed and can't be controlled, aka space junk. Musk is no God, just a businessman. https://spacenews.com/starlink-failures-highlight-space-sustainability-concerns/

  2. If we're burning up a few hundred satellites every few years – that's a lot of wasted materials. How does he plan to keep replacing all these rare earth materials in the satellites?

  3. False. You only see satellites at night if they still in sunlight. Like near dawn or dusk if lower orbits. At worst Starlink satellites only visible 2-3 hours before sunrise or after sunset, in middle of night they also in Earth’s shadow when over horizon and not visible. Most astronomy during this darkest time of night anyway,

  4. When first hearing about Starlink, I was worried about Kessler syndrome. But after looking at the proposed orbital height of the Starlink satellites, Kessler syndrome is basically a non-issue, as any debris from a collision is going to predominantly stay in super low orbit, and without some form of propulsion to keep them up the atmospheric drag will remove the debris very quickly. The light pollution is by far the biggest issue, and with the right materials, and planning a solvable one.

  5. Seeker, please don't perpetuate false information about Starlink.
    This whole thing has been debunked. Starlink is NOT a threat to astronomy.

  6. I would like to ask you a legitimate question. Would it be better to invigorate the world with higher levels of human capital, possibly decreasing astronomy's ability to search for things of little relevance in the immediate future of man and the possibility of creating vast amounts of better astronomical tools and spreading beyond this terrestrial cradle of ours, or is it better to stagnate the global development of man and relegate the ability of our species to leave this planet to fewer and fewer of our kind as not enough have the necessary knowledge that could be gained through a global internet system and thus we are less likely to explore the stars as one species? I know that was long and if you read it all thanks for taking the time, but in all seriousness a simple stagnation in one field for a short time can prove to be beneficial in the long run and whether it is pragmatic to take that route.

  7. Real astronomer here, and let me break down the problem for everyone here who keeps rehashing Musk's non-assurance for astronomers:

    1. 99% of all internet data transfers today are done not through satellites but undersea cables (US Federal Communications Commission). If you guys are commenting here you already have reliable access to the internet, and the benefit that Starlink is providing is to a very small minority of people living in places where it is hard to have an undersea cable connection (either lacking an economy of scale or that it is a sheer logistical impossibility). You're not part of that minority. So no: the main benefit of "internet for all" is barely a benefit—you already have internet at speeds that you need. Starlink internet service is also not free, FYI. If we want better and faster internet, we can always build more fibre-optic cables, which is a reliable technology.

    2. For the rest who keep saying we should transition to space-based telescopes, this is also an error. It is not because it is costly to send telescopes up to space that we don't, it is simply unnecessary for most types of telescopes to be in space. Modern telescopes like the Keck and GMT have what we call adaptive optics that effectively removes the atmosphere in the sky by continuously bending and unbending mirrors in a certain way measured with lasers pointing through the atmosphere. We literally do not need to send telescopes to space, unless we need to observe in ultra-high resolution in the deep infrared (like the JWST) or in X-rays (see Chandra). Astronomy is one of the most well-funded sciences in the US, and if we want to send something up to space, we will. The suggestion (from Musk) that ground-based telescopes are inferior to space-based ones only shows how much he doesn't understand how astronomy is done.

    3. Astronomers are not against Starlink (though I am very against the dumb arguments for it). We just want regulation to the kind of stuff put out there that pollutes the night sky. I don't think it's unreasonable at all!

  8. Same company will be able to send 100+ tons (mass of hubble x 8.9) of space telescope hardware to space per launch, so no worries.

  9. The same way that motor cars ruined horses and carriages? come on, stop being imature. In a world where launching into space is about the same price as an economy international flight, who in their right mind would use an earth based sattelite as opposed to one launced in space? or ones that even orbit the sun…. think ahead… but shes cute so ill pretend like she ahas a point

  10. cheap internet for everyone + funding future musk ventures is way more gamebreakingly important for humanity than 'stargazing' and ground telescopes

  11. I guess this is the angle the monopolies will take, pretending it isn't them complaining since the FCC for some reason isn't listening to their lies. Comcast, Spectrum etc. aren't use to competition and won't no part of such a thing. They buy the state politicians an genus voters put the same ones back in over & over, so laws all around that stops completion. So they got the astronomers complaining and hoping to start a movement I guess. Probably paid for this video also, but deny deny deny. USA corps hate such a thing as competition while pretending its in the consumers best interest. Just shut up already complaining about something you know nothing about. Once the satellites are in position they don't really show up and I don't care of they shine like the moon anyway.

  12. LeMeBucallion
    's analogy is perfect. We're never going to get away from satellites, and the numbers are only going to increase exponentially as access to space becomes cheaper. I think the only viable way forward is to move these observatories off of the Earth. All the more reason to keep our eyes on the moon. The next leader in astronomy may very well be determined by who builds the first large space observatory on the dark side of the moon. And chances are that by then there will be a forward thinking company offering high bandwidth-low latency internet connections between the moon and the Earth to beam all of that precious data back home.

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