May 28, 2019

SpaceX's Starlink has a new foe: Astronomers

Miriam Kramer, author of Space
Starlink satellites deploying in orbit. Credit: SpaceX

Many skywatchers were delighted to spot a bright line of SpaceX's internet-beaming Starlink satellites pass overhead this weekend, but to astronomers, it was an ominous sign of things to come.

Why it matters: Bright satellites in the night sky can affect astronomy by getting in the way of sensitive, long exposure photos. Usually, researchers can work around these satellites by tracking their orbits and accounting for their predictable movements, but with more satellites come more complications.

  • “You take this picture that was meant to be all pretty galaxies and stuff and it ends up being lots of lines across the image where the satellites went by,” astronomer Jonathan McDowell tells Axios.

Driving the news: The 60 Starlink satellites launched by SpaceX on May 23 were unexpectedly bright when they first deployed, McDowell says, rivaling even the brightest stars in the sky and stoking fears about what these satellites might mean for astronomy.

  • However, as time passed and the satellites oriented themselves after launch, they stopped looking as bright.
  • Still, they will likely shine brightly enough to be visible with the naked eye from dark areas around the world with limited light pollution, McDowell says.

The big picture: While these specific satellites may not be that big of a deal in the long run, the large constellations they portend could be an unexpected contributor to light pollution in the night sky for everyone.

  • SpaceX is planning to launch thousands of these satellites over the coming years.
  • Amazon’s Project Kuiper is also expected to launch thousands of their broadband satellites, alongside constellations from OneWeb and others.
  • For his part, SpaceX founder Elon Musk is aware of the issue, tweeting that he's sent a note to the Starlink team asking about ways to reduce the brightness of the crafts.

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