New swarms of satellite constellations, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, … satellites’ numbers and their brightness pose problems for astronomy.
SpaceX’s Starlink is an ambitious plan to bring high-speed internet to every corner of the globe, including rural and remote areas that aren’t covered by existing broadband networks. To accomplish this, it makes use of a constellation of satellites in the lower Earth orbit, which currently numbers in thousands but is expected to grow to as many as 12,000 in the coming years.
In addition to its regular use, Starlink has been deployed in times of crisis to provide internet access, such as in Ukraine after the Russian invasion. Astronomers, in particular, have concerns about the viability of a satellite-based global internet infrastructure.
The problem stems from a satellite constellation consisting of multiple interconnected satellites. SpaceX isn’t the only company working on this idea; constellations from OneWeb, Boeing, and Amazon will join Starlink in the near future. Thousands of satellites are being launched for these projects, and each one presents a new challenge for astronomers.
Since satellites are typically made of metal, they tend to reflect a lot of light. When the satellite is hit by sunlight, the reflected light illuminates it brightly in the night sky. Images captured by ground-based telescopes reveal bright streaks of light caused by recently launched satellites, highlighting the urgency of resolving this issue. These streaks hinder scientists’ ability to observe the sky for extraterrestrial data.
Too many Starlink lead to problems.
Yet, the reflective satellites aren’t the only issue. Radio telescope interference is a second issue brought on by satellite constellations. Radio telescopes are extremely sensitive because they can detect extremely weak radio waves from exceptionally far away sources. There are restrictions on the frequencies that electronic devices can use.
Still, a phenomenon known as “frequency bleed” occurs when satellites emit radio waves at a frequency other than the one on which they are designed to operate. This leakage increases the level of noise in the system, making it harder for radio astronomers to obtain sensitive data. A final issue arises, though it is not specific to satellite constellations.
The increasing amount of trash in the universe beyond Earth is the cause of the space debris problem, which is making space travel more difficult. As the number of satellites in orbit increases, the risk of debris accumulation increases unless companies carefully ensure that their satellites are deorbited responsibly when they are no longer needed.
To be able to look up at the stars is crucial not only for scientific research but also for human well-being, as the International Astronomical Union has pointed out. Astronomers are worried that companies are endangering the principle of quiet skies by launching so many Starlink , which threatens the rights of people to admire the natural beauty of the stars and plays an important role in the cultures and religions of many indigenous peoples.