Hundreds of astronomers have warned that Elon Musk’s Starlink network could prove ‘extremely impactful’ to scientific progress.
The SpaceX CEO launched the first two Starlink satellites in 2018, with the aerospace company now launching dozens of satellites at a time, with the intention of sending thousands of them into space to allow the possibility of high-speed internet access anywhere on Earth.
However, new research brought together by more than 250 astronomers, satellite operators and engineers suggests the disadvantages of such a network could outweigh the benefit, with satellites like Starlink expected to change astronomy and limit scientific discoveries.
The report in question comes out of the Satellite Constellations 1 (Satcon1) workshop – held from June 29 through July 2 by NoirLab and the American Astronomical Society – and found that constellations of bright satellites such as Starlink could alter the appearance of the night sky for stargazers and scientists around the world.
‘We find that the worst-case constellation designs prove extremely impactful to the most severely affected science programs,’ stated the report, which was published yesterday, August 25. ‘For the less affected programs, the impact ranges from negligible to significant.’
Particularly affected will be upcoming space observatories such as the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, which is currently under construction in Chile and which has a very wide view of the sky.
Satcon1 co-chair Jeff Hall from Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, told that while this observatory will ‘substantially enhance humankind’s understanding of the cosmos’, such projects cannot be conducted in space beyond the orbit of mega-constellations.
The report warned that Starlink alone ‘may roughly double the number of space-based moving objects detectable by the unaided eye around twilight’ – and that’s not even taking into account other constellation satellites that are similar to SpaceX’s.
Because the brightness of such satellites has been proven to interfere with other scientific ventures, it’s been necessary for scientists and astronomers alike to consider how this can be resolved.
The report does outline six approaches that could potentially reduce the harm done to astronomical observations, with options including: darkening the surface of the satellites; using sunshades like SpaceX’s VisorSat; orienting them to reflect less sunlight; and removing the impacts during image processing.
However, the preferred option would be to launch fewer or no low-Earth orbit satellites – ‘however impractical or unlikely’ – as this is ‘the only option identified that can achieve zero astronomical impact’, according to the report.
To its credit, SpaceX has already taken action in an attempt to reduce the visibility of its satellite network, which has led members of the public to complain about the satellites being ‘brighter and more noticeable lately’.
These attempts include painting the satellites black and twisting the position of their solar panels to make them less reflective.
However, SpaceX continues to be blamed for the disruption, and just last month was criticised for blocking the view of the Comet Neowise as it made its journey past Earth for the first time in 6800 years.