Jan 19, 2021 - Science

Astronomers grapple with the impact of huge satellite constellations

Illustration of a satellite

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The effects huge constellations of satellites could have on astronomy are starting to come into focus, and astronomers are grappling with what this industrialization of space could mean for the future of their field.

The big picture: Companies like SpaceX and Amazon have plans to launch thousands of internet-beaming satellites to orbit in the coming years.

Where it stands: Satellites can disrupt images taken by powerful telescopes on Earth. In particular, these spacecraft can impede scientists' ability to find dangerous asteroids and distant objects of interest.

  • Scientists now suggest these satellites should be in relatively low orbits because that would keep them out of the field of view for large telescopes for much of the night.
  • Concerns from the scientific community aren’t just focused on streaking satellites in telescope fields of view. Radio astronomers could also face interference from these satellites as they transmit overnight.

The intrigue: Since 2018, SpaceX has launched more than 900 Starlink satellites as part of its constellation, and other companies are racing to catch up. That quick pace hasn’t left much time for astronomers to advocate for their needs.

  • "We need more ground rules up there, in a fairly 'Wild West' environment, as more and more people get into the game," Jeff Hall, of the Lowell Observatory, said during a panel at the American Astronomical Society meeting last week.

What to watch: Astronomers are collaborating with space companies to be sure any interference from their satellites is kept to a minimum.

  • The National Science Foundation and American Astronomical Society have put out a joint report discussing the impact these satellites are having on astronomy, and the International Astronomical Union also has a report on the topic.
  • SpaceX is working on lowering the visibility of their Starlink satellites in a variety of ways, including coating some of them with a material to reduce reflectivity.
  • A study in December showed these "DarkSats" are about half as reflective as earlier Starlink satellites launched by SpaceX. The company is also experimenting with other methods that could further reduce their reflectivity.
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