New fleet of 60 satellites launches new concerns mega constellations could threaten astronomy

ST. GEORGE — Last Monday morning, 60 new satellites were launched into orbit — a second batch to join SpaceX’s growing broadband internet constellation. Along with them rocketed concerns the Starlink constellation, and others like it, will alter the night skies — possibly forever.

Falcon 9 rocket blasts off carrying 60 satellites from Cape Canaveral U.S. Air Force base in Fla., May 26, 2019 | Photo courtesy of SpaceX Corporation, St. George News

The launch took place shortly before 10 a.m. MST from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. An hour later, the Starlink fleet deployed into low-Earth orbit, joining the first set of 60 satellites launched by the company in May. All are designed to quickly burn up in Earth’s atmosphere at the end of their life cycle, SpaceX said in a statement. 

That may be of particular importance, considering there are 2,900 dead satellites orbiting aimlessly adding to the more than 21,000 objects currently being tracked and cataloged by NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.

In total, SpaceX plans to launch 12,000 of the objects that will hover 200 to 340 miles above Earth’s surface as part of the Starlink Mission, designed to provide reliable internet to populations across the globe. Ultimately, the California-based company could fly as many 42,000 new satellites into orbit.

The payload of satellites blasted into space on the Falcon 9, a 750,000 pound two-stage rocket and the first orbital-class rocket capable of reflight. The rocket made history in 2012 when it delivered the Dragon spacecraft into the correct orbit for rendezvous with the International Space Station, and has flown many times since, SpaceX says. 

During the May launch, sky-watchers across the planet got their first look at Starlink’s string of satellites, each similar to a magnitude 2 star, as they moved across the sky.

A video clip of the satellites moving across the Netherlands night sky in May taken by Dutch astronomer Marco Langbroek can be seen at the top of this report.

The “train” effect shown in the video is how the satellites appear for a few days after launch. By the time they reappear in the night sky, they will be spread out in their final orbits, Netherlands-based satellite tracker Marco Langbroek told in an interview in Monday.

Problems on the horizon 

The launch was met with a wave of criticism from concerned astronomers, and caught the attention of the International Astronomical Union. They began voicing concerns about the risk that SpaceX’s Starlink  — and the unprecedented number of artificial objects already in the works — may pose as they hover above the planet.

Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite orbiting in space | Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, St. George News

In its statement, the international agency points out that while there are several mega-constellations currently under development, “no one knows quite what consequences such huge numbers of low Earth orbit satellites could have on astronomy.”

Making matters worse, other companies like Amazon, OneWeb and Telesat are planning their own mega-constellations. Having all of those satellites hovering in low-earth orbit could significantly impact what astronomers need to explore the heavens — a “dark and radio quiet sky,” the international organization says.

Astronomers also voiced concerns that the plethora of satellites could forever alter the night sky and even thwart scientific observations, particularly two key types of astronomy – optical and radio.

The end of dark skies – optical astronomy

Each individual satellite reflects light. While most of these reflections are too faint for the casual sky watcher to see, astronomers use more sensitive optical telescopes. Some of those telescopes are super sensitive and designed to survey the whole sky rapidly. 

A big problem with the satellites is their highly reflective surfaces, which interferes with natural starlight and prevents astronomers from being able to observe parts of space at certain times.

The end of radio silence

The satellites communicate with Earth via radio signals, which could make it much more difficult for astronomers working in radio wavelength to ignore the increase in human chatter caused by the artificial constellations.

Further, recent advances in radio astronomy, such as those that produced their first image of a black hole, the agency said, “were only possible through concerted efforts in safeguarding the radio sky from interference.”

Concerns for humanity 

A dark and quiet sky is essential for not only humanity, but also “for the protection of nocturnal wildlife,” the statement reads.

“We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky and despite their good intentions, these satellite constellations may threaten both.”

The prospect of bright artificial lights moving across the sky didn’t sit well with dark sky enthusiasts or those working with ground-based astronomy either, which SpaceX says it addressed when it announced plans to paint the undersides of future Starlink satellites black. But this still won’t reduce the most brilliant light reflected by the satellite’s solar panels.

Even with the efforts employed to mitigate the problems associated with the different satellite constellations, the International Astronomical Union warns that the goals for “the new and largely unregulated frontier of space” should be approached with caution, and warned in their statement that “satellite constellations can pose a significant or debilitating threat to important existing and future astronomical infrastructures.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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