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This Is Uncomfortable
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Jun 10, 2019

SpaceX satellites lit up the night sky… too brightly

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Astronomers worry all that light could mess with their data.

SpaceX launched about 60 small satellites in May, the first batch in its Starlink project designed to provide cheaper satellite internet access all over the world. But those first 60 satellites were bright, visible in photographs and even the naked eye. Astronomers freaked out, worried they could interfere with both visual and radio astronomy. As the satellites settled into position, they dimmed, but thousands more are coming.

Host Molly Wood talked with Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. He said scientists didn’t know what to expect from the SpaceX launch. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jonathan McDowell: I’d been aware that they were planning to launch this massive constellation of satellites, but I really hadn’t expected them to be that bright. Observers in Europe saw them coming overhead, started putting pictures on the internet and reporting that they were as bright as the brightest stars. Then my initial reaction was absolute panic. Sixty satellites that they’ve launched so far, that’s fine, we can live with that. But they’re planning to launch 12,000. That’s really going to change things. After a few days, when they started orienting the satellites, they got fainter and so our level of panic has decreased to extreme nervousness.

What you’ll see just at the edge of your vision is the whole sky crawling. There will be more of these satellites than there are stars visible.

Jonathan McDowell

Molly Wood: What are the consequences? Is it similar to an ugly building in a city skyline or can you help us understand the long term consequences?

McDowell: It’s potentially a little worse than that. Suppose you’re looking for a really distant galaxy or a black hole and you’re making a long exposure of the sky. If there are enough satellites, you’re going to have streaks across the image coming from all different directions. That would make it very difficult to analyze the data. The other thing that’s going to happen is that if you’re out hiking in the countryside or if you live in an area where the skies are dark, once 12,000 of these satellites are up, they’re going to be just at the verge of being able to be seen with the naked eye if they don’t make changes. What you’ll see just at the edge of your vision is the whole sky crawling. There will be more of these satellites than there are stars visible.

Wood: Wow. It does seem like some changes are an inevitability. We are moving in the direction of space.

McDowell: Absolutely. We are moving in the direction of space. We all want cheap internet, and we all want the development of space industry. It’s a question of how we manage that and the conversations we have with the different people who have an interest in the sky. I’m optimistic the Starlink constellation itself we can manage. But if, for example, Jeff Bezos’ plan for massive factories in orbit really takes off, it could change the night sky for everyone around the world forever. As the years go on, the industrialization of space I expect will proceed apace.

Wood: Even though we’re coming to the conversation after the fact a bit, do you think there will be rules, and are there various bodies that could be in charge of setting some kind of global standards for reflectivity so that we’re not reliant on the kindness of SpaceX?

McDowell: I think bodies like the International Astronomical Union, in collaboration with the United Nations, could come up with recommendations. Then, ultimately, space law is all about countries, not about companies. Every company that wants to launch a satellite has to get permission from its host country. So you could imagine regulations flowing down to the regulations of, for example in the United States, the [Federal Aviation Administration] and the [Federal Communications Commission], various federal agencies that regulate launch licenses for satellites. This has happened in the past with space debris. There’s also concern for these big constellations of satellites hitting each other, and that the international community has been worrying about for quite a long time and has put forth guidelines, which are not mandatory but which have in fact been flowed down to U.S. regulations about whether or not you can get a launch license. I think that’s the path forward.

Wood: Although, I recently read about a company that launched some pretty shocking number of satellites, the CubeSats, and got like a $900,000 fine, which I thought seemed absurdly low. I thought, “Shouldn’t they all go to jail because they just shot all of this debris up into the sky?”

McDowell: Well, to be fair, Swarm Technologies put only four satellites up without a license. Yeah, that was very embarrassing, and I think they are very embarrassed by it, abased themselves before the authorities sufficiently to get back in their good books. But yes, it was good that they got a fine. It was good that there was actually action, and it just shows the complexity. What’s happening is, because there are so many satellites being launched now and a lot of these little CubeSats from small startups, instead of it just being a few players like NASA and the Russian space agency and so on, you have all these different launch providers, and you have a whole middleman industry of companies that exist just to take 50 different satellites from 50 different companies and broker them launches on a rocket. So the paperwork trail gets very complicated, and it gets hard to enforce these things.

Related links: more insight from Molly Wood

Elon Musk did respond quickly on Twitter when astronomers were panicking about the Starlink launch. He said future satellites will be less reflective, but he also said cheaper internet access for billions is still worth it.

And at Amazon’s re:Mars conference in Las Vegas last week, Jeff Bezos said that we will need to move almost all of Earth’s industrial production into space in order to “save the Earth.”

There’s an interesting back and forth where the publisher of Universe Today suggested Musk could make it up to the science community by putting some telescopes on future Starlink satellites and using their internet access to beam the pictures back to Earth. Elon responded that he’s all over that.

See, it’s all about communication, which is exactly the argument in a Washington Post op-ed about the Starlink constellation. It says, “Hey man, this didn’t need to be such a big thing because, yes, as the satellites reoriented after launch, their brightness did fade. But maybe SpaceX just could have called some people ahead of time and let the astronomy community know what was coming.”

For its part, SpaceX told the Post that all its regulatory filings about Starlink were available to the public and there was a public comment period. The company has been working to make sure that its radio spectrums don’t interfere too much with radio astronomy, the kind where astronomers study the electromagnetic radiation of the universe to detect galaxies that we couldn’t possibly see or detect with optical telescopes. (Or things like pulsars, quasars and even cosmic microwave background radiation, which I am obsessed with.) It’s the sort of aftereffects and lingering radiation from the Big Bang, and it’s everywhere in the universe and otherwise totally invisible. Sorry, nerd rabbit hole alert!

Seriously though, I wonder if future astronomy is going to have to happen in space with space-based telescopes or even on board the Bezos colonies?

The team

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