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Starts With A Bang

This Is How Elon Musk Can Fix The Damage His Starlink Satellites Are Causing To Astronomy

On November 18, 2019, approximately 19 Starlink satellites passed over Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, disrupting astronomical observations and hindering the science being undertaken in a real, measurable way. (CLARAE MARTÍNEZ-VÁZQUEZ / CTIO)

Observations have been ruined; scientific satellites with the right-of-way have had to alter course. Here’s a how-to guide to doing better.


In any field of business or industry, the prevailing rule has always been that if there isn’t a law against it, you are free to do it. If there are no rules protecting a resource, you are free to use or take as much of it as you want to further your own ends. Until regulatory measures are put into place, disruptors and innovators are free to regulate themselves, often to the extraordinary detriment of those who depended on those now-scarce resources.

In astronomy, the greatest resource of all is a dark, clear night sky: humanity’s window to the Universe. Traditionally, its enemies have been turbulent air, cloud cover, and artificial light pollution. But very recently, a new type of pollutant has begun to pose an existential threat to astronomy itself: mega-constellations of satellites. If Elon Musk’s Starlink project continues as it has begun, it will likely end ground-based astronomy as we know it.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying 60 Starlink satellites on November 11, 2019 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Starlink constellation will eventually consist of thousands of satellites designed to provide world wide high-speed internet service, but the cost to the science of astronomy is already substantial, and is poised to rise significantly over the coming years. (Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Launching satellites to provide services to those of us living on the ground is an essential part of modern-day living. GPS and telecommunications satellites enable our cellular signals and support our mobile internet today. With the coming upgrade to 5G services, a new set of infrastructure will be required, and that necessarily means an upgraded set of satellites equipped to provide that service must be launched.

One of the first companies to attempt to serve this market is SpaceX, under the guidance of Elon Musk, which plans to initially deploy 12,000 satellites in a mega-constellation known as Starlink. Ultimately, the constellation hopes to extend to a total of 42,000 satellites. As of November 20, 2019, only 122 of these satellites have been deployed, and they’ve already had a detrimental impact on astronomy on a global scale.

If we hope to mitigate this, either regulators or SpaceX executives themselves will need to mandate a change.

A view of a pristine night sky, edited to reflect the full extent of what the human eye can see, from the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. All told, approximately 9,000 stars are visible to the unaided human eye from all locations on Earth. (RICHARD RYER OF PANORAMIO)

From the darkest skies you can find on Earth, approximately 9,000 stars are visible to human eyes: down to a visual magnitude of +6.5, the limit of human vision. Yet the first 122 satellites launched by Starlink are not only brighter than the majority of these stars, they move quickly throughout the sky, leaving trails that pollute astronomers’ data.

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If these satellites were either faint, few in number, or slowly moving, this would be only a mild problem. If you’re only observing a narrow region of the sky, you’d simply reject any exposure frames (or even just the pixels from them) where the offending objects streak across the sky. But with large numbers of bright, rapidly moving satellites, particularly if you’re searching for changes from frame-to-frame (like many current and future observatories are designed to do), you have to throw out any exposure frame with these artifacts in them.

On November 18, 2019, a constellation of Starlink satellites passed through the observing frame of the Dark Energy Camera aboard the 4m telescope at CTIO. Any technique that we’d use to subtract out these trails would hinder our ability to detect potentially hazardous asteroids or measure variable objects in the Universe. (CLIFF JOHNSON / CTIO / DECAM)

On November 18, 2019, a series of 19 of these Starlink satellites passed over the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory’s site in Chile, lasting for more than 5 minutes and heavily affecting the wide-field DECam instrument, which images a field containing 3 square degrees at an outstanding 0.263 arcsecond-per-pixel resolution.

Even though this only represents 0.3% of the total number of proposed Starlink satellites that SpaceX wants to launch, the consequences are clear: wide-field astronomy designed to look for faint objects — prime goals of observatories like Pan-STARRS, LSST, and any observing program geared towards finding potentially Earth-hazardous objects — is going to be significantly hindered. Averaging over frames is not a desired option, because it erases astronomers’ ability to study the natural variability of object, another important science goal. Because Starlink satellites autonomously change their orbits and are extremely radio-loud, ground-based observations cannot be scheduled so as to avoid them.

Thousands of manmade objects — 95 % of them “space junk” — occupy low Earth orbit. Each black dot in this image shows either a functioning satellite, an inactive satellite, or a piece of debris. Although the space near Earth looks crowded, each dot is much larger than the satellite or debris it represents, and collisions are extremely rare. However, adding thousands or even tens of thousands to medium-Earth orbits could pollute not only the night sky, but the region around Earth used for satellites and space travel, for millennia. (NASA ILLUSTRATION COURTESY ORBITAL DEBRIS PROGRAM OFFICE)

In addition, these satellites are not in traditional low-Earth orbits, which will decay and fall back to Earth on timescales of months, years, or (at most) decades, these satellites are at elevations of over 1,000 km, where orbital decay will take millennia. Already, back in September, the ESA’s Aeolus satellite (used for Earth observation) had to make an emergency maneuver to avoid colliding with a SpaceX Starlink satellite, despite the fact that it was SpaceX’s responsibility to move.

Although SpaceX and Musk have issued statements claiming that:

all of these statements are not yet true as of November 20, 2019.

A pair of nearly simultaneous and parallel Iridium satellite flares, on October 9, 2017, as they descended into the north The left or westerly flare was much brighter and with a sharp rise and fall in brightness. The Iridium constellation is one of the most prominent in the sky, but consists of only 66 total satellites that aren’t always bright, but simply flare periodically and in a predictable fashion. (VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Previous constellations of satellites, such as the extremely successful Iridium constellation, proceeded in clearly defined and predictable orbits, were few in number (66 total), and only flared brightly when their orientation reflected sunlight in a particular manner. The Starlink satellites, along with similar planned constellations such as Kuiper Systems and OneWeb, pose a new and unique hurdle for ground-based astronomy.

According to Cees Bassa from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, up to 140 such satellites will be visible at any one time from every observatory on Earth. However, if the companies behind these new constellations are willing to take just a few simple steps, all of these hurdles can be overcome. Here’s what a responsible steward of the night sky ought to do, and how SpaceX can undo the damage they’re in the process of inflicting on astronomy.

When a spacecraft re-enters Earth’s atmosphere, it almost always inevitably breaks up into many pieces. If the deorbiting isn’t done in a controlled fashion, the debris could land over populated areas, causing catastrophic damage. However, controlled deorbiting is the best way to eliminate unwanted, unsafe, or otherwise hazardous material in Earth’s orbit. (NASA/ESA/BILL MOEDE AND JESSE CARPENTER)

1.) De-orbit the current batch of Starlink satellites, and place a moratorium on the launch of new ones until the proper modifications have been made. Unlike most of the GPS and communications satellites we have today, the current Starlink satellites are large, reflective, and already causing some astronomers to throw out significant portions of their data. Currently at an altitude of 280 km, where they’re visible to the naked eye, they can now easily and safely be de-orbited.

But once they’re raised to their operational altitude of 550 km, they become a much more permanent problem. In addition, public awareness will drop, but they will remain visible to all binoculars and telescopes: the astronomer’s most essential tools. Every moment that these satellites are up there is the astronomical equivalent of callously rollin’ coal in the face of every scientist, researcher, and especially the undergraduate and graduate students who rely on hard-to-obtain telescope time in order to start their careers.

This image shows the first 60 Starlink satellites launched into orbit on May 23, 2019. They are still in their stacked configuration, just prior to being deployed. You can clearly see that these satellites are quite reflective; they have not even been treated with something as simple as a coat of black paint. (SPACEX / SPACE.COM)

2.) Either redesign or coat the satellites to significantly reduce their reflectivity. Part of the problem with these new satellites is that they’re both large and highly reflective. But these problems are unnecessary: they’re choices. Choosing a different design, where the satellites can be oriented to minimize the impact on astronomy, would ameliorate the problem. Even more cost-effectively, simply coating the satellites with a very dark, low-albedo outer layer would go a long way to reducing the astronomically polluting effects of this constellation.

Albedo reduction, it is very clear from the current Starlink satellites, was not even considered as part of the design. By incorporating some common sense steps to reduce it — and I know plenty of astronomers willing to help with recommendations — the apparent brightness of these satellites can be reduced by a factor of approximately ~100.

On May 25, 2019, Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, took this image of galaxy group NGC 5353 and NGC 5354. The trails shown here originate from 25 Starlink satellites; images like this could be avoided entirely if the trajectories and paths were published and made available, with real-time adjustments, to astronomers. (IAU/ VICTORIA GIRGIS/ LOWELL OBSERVATORY)

3.) Provide real-time trajectory plans, predictions, and adjustment information for each satellite to observatories worldwide. One of the worst things about these satellites is that they come without predictable trajectories. If their paths were known, astronomers could schedule observations that absolutely minimized their impact on the science, making good use of every moment of good seeing.

It should be not only easy, but mandatory, to set up a global network that tracked the predicted paths of each satellite in real-time, updated continuously to account for any maneuvers or course-corrections that were taken. By providing this information to astronomers, the polluted areas can be avoided at any moment in time, while still taking quality observations of as much of the sky as possible.

The first 122 Starlink satellites have now been successfully deployed, and are already causing headaches for astronomers. To offset this, it’s only fair that the companies placing these satellites in orbit pay astronomers to develop the necessary measures to minimize their impact on professional astronomy. (SPACEX VIA TWITTER)

4.) Provide funding to assist astronomers in the development of hardware and software-driven solutions to subtracting out as much of the satellite pollution as possible. Even if all of these steps are taken, it will still be an arduous and expensive task for astronomers to account for the contamination that remains in their data. It’s unreasonable to expect that Starlink or any satellite-based company will have no impact on astronomy at all, but it’s extremely reasonable to demand that they fund the mitigation efforts astronomers will need to take.

This is how literally every other industry in the world works: if you plunder some aspect of the natural environment, you must make restitution for the damage that you caused. The astronomers that I know don’t care that you have satellites up there; they care that they’re still able to do their work despite them. It really isn’t too much to ask.

By filing paperwork with the International Telecommunications Union for the operation of an additional 30,000 Starlink satellites (in addition to the 12,000 already approved), the night sky will never be the same. If Elon Musk, Starlink, SpaceX, and the other major players in this space are serious about being good stewards of the night sky, they won’t wait for a national or international body to force them to do the right thing. (STARLINK (SIMULATION))

Right now, the Outer Space Treaty only prohibits the militarized use of space; all peaceful purposes are allowed. There are no consequences for damages done to the night sky and no regulations on pollution or contamination. So long as you register your satellite(s) and don’t cause an in-orbit or on-Earth collision, there is no legal liability to what you do.

The astronomical community’s only options are either to attempt to get laws passed protecting the night sky, or to hope that the industry will self-regulate. If companies like SpaceX, Kuiper Systems and OneWeb take the altruistic route of addressing these issues in advance of causing widespread problems, they will truly be worthy captains of this burgeoning industry. But it’s very scary to be entering an era where the future of one of humanity’s oldest sciences depends on the ethical compasses of a few profit-driven companies. Our understanding of the Universe, from nearby hazardous objects to the distant recesses of space, is no longer in the hands of astronomers.


Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.

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