Welcome to the era of satellite megaconstellation. Within the next few years, vast networks containing hundreds or even thousands of spacecraft could reshape the future of the Earth’s orbital environment.
Much of the attention to these satellite wires has been placed on the numerous releases of SpaceX and OneWeb, but the focus is now returning to Amazon. Last month, the Federal Communications Commission approved a request from the online marketplace to launch its constellation Project Kuiper, which, like StarX’s StarXink and SpaceX’s OneWeb network, aims to expand high-speed Internet service to customers in worldwide, including those in remote or undeserved communities hobbled by a constant digital divide.
The Kuiper constellation would consist of 3,236 satellites. That’s more than the nearly 2,600 active satellites that already orbit the Earth. While Amazon hardware is a long way from the startpad, SpaceX has already deployed hundreds of satellites to its Starlink constellation, including 57 additional satellites it released on Friday. Can expand it to 12,000, or more. Facebook and Telesat can also get into the online constellation business.
The rapid influx of satellites into low Earth orbit has prompted reaction from professional and amateur astronomers. Starlink satellites are notorious for “photobombining” astronomical images with bright stripes, damaging the quality and reducing the volume of data scientists collect for research. As SpaceX plans to reduce the effects of its releases on astronomical observations, scientists and hobbyists in the community are worried about the lack of stellar adjustment as more entries like the Kuiper Project come together in action.
“We still do not have any kind of guidance worldwide,” said Michele Bannister, a planetary astronomer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “We do not have an industry body that produces a good corporate citizenship on the part of all these enthusiastic companies that want to start, and we do not have any regulatory system in place that is providing clear guidance back to the industry.”
She added, “To me, honestly, it feels like putting on a plane and then having no air traffic control.”
Since the first set of Starlink satellites launched in May 2019, many sky crews have mourned with their bright glow. Light pollution is particularly pronounced when satellites are freshly placed and directed into their operational orbits. At this point, they are perfectly positioned to capture sunlight at dawn and dusk, deceiving astrophys and telescope observations. Starlink needs to be constantly replenished with new satellites, so these paths will be a constant problem.
“Most ground-based observers actually start at dusk,” said Julien H. Girard, a supporting scientist at the Baltimore Space Telescope Science Institute. “We start getting data even when the sky is not completely dark, especially at roughly infrared and infrared wavelengths.”
Satellites can create the biggest problems for wide-field observations that study extended regions of the night sky right away. Moving satellites through the frame can obstruct observer targets or defeat them with light. Astronomers may use software to remove satellite paths to some extent, but this may not completely fix the images.
“There is no doubt that the astronomical community can still do science with the presence of those stars, but it is a burden,” said Dr. Girard.
Light pollution can grab our view of countless fantastic astronomical targets. For example, scientists have begun to discover interstellar objects in our solar neighborhood, such as Oumuamua, a strange elongated rock discovered in 2017 greeted by an unknown stellar system, or Comet Borisov, who was most observed later.
Megaconstellations are uniquely positioned to interfere with the discoveries of these space wanderers. “One of the main times of discovery for interstellar objects is in that period the sky near the astronomical twilight, or dawn and dusk, which is when these satellites have their greatest impact,” said Dr. Bannister.
So far, astronomers have devoted most of their attention to Starlink because SpaceX was the first company to launch large groups of satellites. The OneWeb constellation presents a different set of problems for radio astronomers due to the height of its orbit. Its future has been uncertain since it filed for bankruptcy and began purchase talks.
But now that Amazon has FCC approval, Starlink satellites will have companies both in orbit and in discussing the effects of these networks on astronomy.
“Kuiper will easily have as much impact on optical and radio astronomy as other satellite stars,” said Jeff Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory in Arizona and chairman of the American Astronomical Society’s Light Pollution Committee.
The constellation on Amazon will have far fewer satellites compared to Starlink, but its cluster will be placed in three orbits, all higher in height than the SpaceX network.
“Some of those higher orbits look like they’re actually going to be more problematic for astronomical images because they’re going to be, in essence, visible for longer,” said Dr. Bannister, though it is not clear how the light pollution from these constellations will be compared.
“Companies do not publish what reflection their satellites will have, so it is difficult to model,” she said.
As the amount of satellite coils up, so does the risk of collisions as well. Collisions between satellites add hazardous orbital debris. Imagine if all the broken glass and prickly detritus from a piece of automobile continued to move at high speeds on the highway, requiring vehicles to plow through it. This is how space orbital lanes work, so it will be essential that the protocols that regulate space traffic be able to keep pace with these megaconstellations to prevent clips and crashes.
Already, there was an alarming incident in which an Earth observation spacecraft operated by the European Space Agency had to fire its strikers to dodge a Starlink satellite. A splinter of dust between the ships was not safe, but the trajectories posed quite a threat that ESA decided the maneuver was necessary. These meetings may become more frequent as thousands of additional satellites take to the skies.
“If this is what we are entitled to in the testing phase of these megaconstellations, how will it happen when we have 5,000 of these, what is it that we are projected to have release in the next two years?” Tha Bannister.
As these concerns are raised, there is no other obvious way to stop or slow down the development of these megaconstellations.
“One of the things I think is most problematic is that there is no legal prevention, no legal protection for the night sky,” said Chris Newman, professor of law and space policy at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom.
With hundreds of Starlink and OneWeb satellites already launched, and thousands more expected in the coming years, astronomers are feeling increasing pressure to find a workable compromise with the companies. Decisions made now can affect heaven for decades.
At the moment, this means having a vision of a safe and clear night sky that would rely on voluntary mechanisms.
In response to light pollution concerns, SpaceX is experimenting with dark clothing and sunlight for its Starlink satellites.
Representatives from Amazon and SpaceX, as well as a former consultant with OneWeb, participated in a recent workshop called Satellite Constellations 1, organized by the AAS and the National Science Foundation, according to Dr. Hall. A report summarizing the results and recommendations of the workshop will be made public within a few weeks. But Amazon has already stated a desire to work with astronomers.
“Reflection is an essential consideration in our design and development process, and we are engaging with members of the astronomy community to better understand their concerns and identify steps we can take to minimize our impact.” said an Amazon spokesman. “We will have more to share as we release additional details in our plans for the project.”
But many dark sky astronomers and advocates are calling for a strong regulatory approach to these issues.
“I think the only real way in which, going forward, this is going to happen, is if national regulators make that part of the licensing requirement that the satellite companies that place the stars take into account the needs of terrestrial astronomy.” says Dr. Tha Newman. “I think it is very possible, and I do not think it would require more accommodation from companies.”
Of course, the night sky is not just a resource for professional astronomers. Throughout generations and cultures, people have looked after the sunset to seek solace, magic and perspective from the stars. Expanding internet access worldwide has a noticeable public benefit, but so does maintaining clear skies and bright stars.
“We are talking about changing something that is shared across the planet,” said Dr. Bannister.
“This is the environmental impact,” she added. “This is something we know how to discuss and regulate in all other areas of corporate activity. Why should it be different? “