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SpaceX's Starlink 4 mission
SpaceX's Starlink 4 missionvia SpaceX

Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellites are pissing off astronomers

The satellites’ solar panels are disrupting terrestrial space observation

Whether it’s Elon Musk making plans to colonise Mars with his company SpaceX, or Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin taking the first woman astronaut to the moon, billionaires love space exploration. Now, both companies are launching satellite megaconstellations into the cosmos to provide internet across the world – but risk getting in the way of essential space science.

Megaconstellations of satellites are made up of multiple satellites, which function as a network to provide services such as global internet. SpaceX is currently working on a megaconstellation that will eventually feature 12,000 satellites. In November 2019, it started launching its Starlink satellites in batches of 60, with the aim of providing a global broadband service.

This could potentially benefit the 2.5 billion people who currently have no internet access. So far, 800 satellites have been launched. This year, SpaceX aims to have enough satellites to provide near-global coverage.

Similarly, Blue Origin is planning its own megaconstellation of more than 3,000 satellites, called Kuiper. These will orbit between 590km and 630km above the Earth, and will also be used to provide broadband to those who are unable to access it terrestrially.

However, the satellites’ solar panels reflect sunlight, which poses major problems for ground-based astronomical space observatories.

“The satellites’ solar panels reflect sunlight, making them appear as fast moving spots of light across the sky,” Lucie Green, a professor of physics and a Royal Society university research fellow at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL, reported in Wired.

“Many of us have already seen the Starlink satellites in space shortly after their launch, crossing the sky as long ‘trains’. This can be a problem for astronomers, who are already seeing their images ‘photobombed’ by satellites, making them harder to analyse,” she added.

“We’re seeing the beginnings of a new industrial revolution in space,” Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who published one of the first studies of the impact of these satellites, told Discover. “This is a phase change. We’re going from hundreds of satellites in low-Earth orbit to potentially tens of thousands.”

Back in August, hundreds of astronomers submitted a report to the National Science Foundation outlining the community’s concerns. Among the hardest hit areas of astronomy are those teams that scan for near-Earth asteroids, which are visible at twilight in the direction of the sun.
“This report shows it’s a very serious problem for astronomy and fatal for many kinds of science,” McDowell said.

In response, SpaceX has been taking steps to reduce the visible impact of its satellites by adding sunshades and altering their positioning so that they will be much harder to see with the naked eye. Blue Origin has yet to confirm any measures.