A few years ago, SpaceX started landing Falcon 9 rocket boosters so frequently that it stopped being a major event. Now, the same is starting to happen with the company’s Starlink satellite launches. The launch of 60 new satellites this week has made SpaceX the single largest commercial satellite operator in the world, and it could soon have more satellites than all other operators combined. That has astronomers nervous.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk envisions a day when people all over the world will be able to get internet access via the company’s Starlink satellite network. Satellite internet already exists, but the bandwidth and latency are awful compared with any other modern connectivity method. Starlink is designed to avoid those shortcomings, but it’ll take a lot of satellites to get there.
Starlink satellites are small and easy to produce en masse, and importantly, SpaceX can fit 60 of them in one of its Falcon 9 rockets. Having its own reusable rockets makes deployment much less expensive, giving it a sizeable advantage over other companies that want to launch mega-constellations. After the most recent launch, SpaceX has almost 180 Starlink satellites in orbit, and there are only about 2,100 total active satellites in space. In the space of a few months, SpaceX has become the largest satellite operator in the world, and it plans to send up more batches of satellites every few weeks. In total, it’s approved to launch 12,000, and it wants even more.
Astronomers have expressed concern about having so many satellites in orbit, and we’re already seeing some negative impacts. Astronomer Clarae Martínez-Vázquez from the CTIO observatory in Chile recently shared a series of images that may become commonplace for other astronomers. During an observation of the Magellanic Clouds, a cluster of Starlink satellites zipped through the frame, leaving bright streaks that obscured the distant galaxies. The team estimates it lost 15-20 percent of the observational data.
These satellites will eventually move into higher orbits where they are less visible, but SpaceX plans to launch more every few weeks. Astronomers worry that thousands of new objects in the sky will be a problem for everyone regardless of their orbits. “You’ll see the sky crawling,” according to Tony Tyson from the University of California Davis.
SpaceX says it has taken measures to reduce the reflectivity of its satellites, but that may not be enough. The unfortunate truth is any measures SpaceX takes are entirely voluntary. There is no national or international law protecting optical astronomy, and that could spell trouble as the skies become ever more crowded.
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