SpaceX Starlink Sats Stump Stargazers

Global Network of Thousands of Small Satellites Threatens to Ruin our Views of the Night Sky

The first phase of the SpaceX Starlink system will go online this year, in a project that will eventually see tens of thousands of satellites circling around the Earth. Yet, even with the launch of just the first 60 sats last year, astronomers and night sky enthusiasts around the world were up in arms. They contend that the Starlink network will inhibit research and ruin the night sky for all of us.

It is easy to understand why astronomers, astrophotographers, and enthusiasts are concerned. Already, there are hundreds of satellites orbiting the Earth, and at certain times in the early night and late morning, light from the sun reflects off of their metal surfaces, causing them to illuminate and resemble stars… albeit stars that slowly and silently course through the sky. The Starlink network promises to increase the number of satellites in orbit by an order of magnitude. Astrophotographers, like myself, will find more ugly streaks of light on our long exposure photographs. Meanwhile, astronomers will have more difficulty doing their research as views of star systems, planets, and nebulae are obscured.

SpaceX seems to have been caught a bit off guard by the outcry. This isn’t particularly surprising. SpaceX is a company that is hell-bent on making the impossible….possible. When making dreams reality, there is usually little time to stop and consider the ramifications of those dreams, especially among those who do not necessarily share that dream.

Regardless, there are some measures that SpaceX has promised to take that will assuage some of the concerns of the astronomy community. The first and most important measure is to reduce the albedo, or the “reflectiveness” if you will, of the satellites. One prototype satellite with a special low albedo coating has already been launched to test the concept. Lower albedo will mean less disruption on sky views from Earth.

Additionally, the Starlink system and the cheaper access to space that has made the system possible also brings about the possibility of launching more and vastly more capable space-based telescopes. Free from light pollution and atmospheric distortion on Earth, space-based telescopes could yield far greater dividends to researchers than terrestrial telescopes ever could. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has eluded that the launch of telescopes could be on the cards in the future.

At the end of the day, however, we should be celebrating and not deriding the Starlink system. While the limitations that the Starlink system will pose on astronomy is regrettable, it is a basic principle of the universe that all actions create reactions of some form or another. Our cities, for example, create jobs, opportunity, and innovation, yet the light pollution that they generate makes all but the brightest stars invisible to our eyes. Indeed, generations of urbanites have grown up without knowing what the Milky Way looks like, but few would suggest that we limit the development of our cities or forgo electricity to preserve views of the Milky Way.

For better or for worse, Starlink, and other systems like it, are here to stay. We should focus on the vast opportunities that these systems bring rather than the few that we are going to lose.

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