Is Elon Musk Ruining Our Night Sky

With the proposed launch of tens of thousands of satellites, is SpaceX and Elon Musk ruining our night sky?

3929 Views | Published on 28th Jun, 2019

Hey everybody and welcome to another Deep Astronomy vlog post, my name is Tony Darnell and I run Deep Astronomy dot space. A place where we’ve been looking up since 2006. Today, I want to talk about our night sky and whether or not the upcoming swarm of satellites planned for launch into low Earth orbit is going to ruin our night skies.

Now if you haven’t heard this yet, in late May of this year, SpaceX launched a group of sixty satellites into low Earth orbit with the goal of providing global internet coverage, something I support, but it comes with a lot of problems. These satellites that were launched this year was the first of what could be up to a total of 12,000 satellites and so far the FCC has approved almost 1,600 to be launched and operated.

From the very first video I ever made on YouTube way back in 2006, I’ve been saying this: “When you look up at the night sky on a clear, dark night, you can see about 3,000 stars.” That’s it. Three thousand stars with your naked eye on a night with no clouds and from a place that doesn’t have light pollution, which is a different but related to the problem we’re talking about today.

Alex Parker, a planetary astronomer on Twitter, puts that estimate higher at 9000 stars, but I think that’s way optimistic. Even well-adapted for darkness, I don’t think our eyes can see that many. So we can split the difference and I’ll go as high as 5000 stars.

So SpaceX wants to put 12,000 bright, shiny, reflective satellites 550 km over our heads. They are very bright and 12,000 is a lot and each one would be bright enough to be seen by the naked eye.

And they aren’t the only company that wants to do this. Amazon has Project Kuiper which is currently in the design stage that will have 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit — including 784 satellites at an altitude of 590km; 1,296 satellites at a height of 610km; and 1,156 satellites in 630km orbits.

So from just SpaceX and Amazon 15,236 satellites would be put into Earth orbit, and there are more companies that want to do something similar, Google has been trying for a while with Project Loon, which tries to use balloons floating in the stratosphere to provide internet and Facebook has project Athena, which so far is just a cubesat millimeter-wave experiment that has also been granted by the FCC to operate but one can imagine that this project will also grow to hundreds if not thousands of satellites to be able to achieve global coverage.

And all of this folks is on top of the 20,000 or so satellites that are already there. If you haven’t seen this, go check it out: this is stuffin dot space. And this website shows you in real time where all the satellites in orbit are right now above the Earth. It’s stupendous what how much stuff we have up there. If you haven’t yet, you should play around with this interface, it shows you where the GPS satellites are, rocket bodies left up there by SpaceX all kinds of stuff. I didn’t see the 60 starlink satellites yet but I’ve only been playing with this for a short time. You should definitely go check it out though.

I’m not going to go into the other issues with so many satellites in orbit overhead - not the least of which is the Kessler syndrome where the density of satellites becomes high enough that collisions between them start to cascade a create a real mess - I’ll take that one on in a future video, for now, I want to focus on how all of these satellites will affect our night sky, namely using telescopes on the ground to learn about the universe.

Ok so after SpaceX released the first batch of sixty satellites, Lowell observatory in Arizona tried to image the galaxy group NGC 5353/4 on the night of May 25, 2019 and saw this mess superimposed on the field. Those hugely distracting diagonal lines are more than 25 of the 60 satellites that passed through the field of view of the telescope during the exposure.

Even allowing for the fact that this was taken shortly after the deployment where they were all bunched up, it has been estimated by Alex Parker that if all 12,000 get launched about 500 of them will be above the horizon and directly illuminated by the Sun, creating a megaconstellation of satellites with each one having a 2nd or 3rd magnitude brightness.

It’s also important to note that the satellites in this image had not reached their final altitude when this was taken, so we’ll need to look again, but this is quite alarming.

In the Twitter thread I have linked to below, exoplanet astronomer Hugh Osborn calculated that at 550 km, any one observer can see 3.6% of the 12,000 satellites at any one time, which is 430 satellites, and during the high-latitude summer nights, a large fraction will be illuminated. The exact number will depend a lot on the specifics once they’re all up there but Cees Bassa, another astronomer on Twitter calculated that of the 1,600 Starlink satellites already approved to fly, 84 would be above the horizon with 15 that would be sunlit and visible above 30 degrees latitude. At 52 degrees latitude and above, they’d be lit throughout the night from May to mid-August.

Now you may think that all of this is just silly, that astronomers are getting their panties in a bunch over nothing and that the benefits of global high-speed internet availability far outweigh the downside of astronomers being able to actually observe the universe, and you may have a point, I don’t know. I do know that I’m biased towards being able to see the stars, but then I have a pretty good internet connection so that’s easy for me to say I guess.

There has been a lot of pushback from SpaceX fans, especially on Twitter, telling astronomers to get over it with this guy Luis leading the charge to defend SpaceX. But I want to be clear on something: No one, not even astronomers, are trying to make the case that these projects shouldn’t be done. Instead we should think carefully about the effects swarms of satellites that will easily double what’s already up there will have in all areas of our lives.

The concern of astronomers over this issue is growing. Both the American Astronomical Society and the International Dark Sky Association have both come out with statements reflecting their concerns and expressing the desire for companies working on global satellite swarms like this to work with astronomers.

Remember, we are in the process of building some of the largest ground-based telescopes ever seen, at a cost of billions of dollars: there’s the Extremely Large Telescope being built in Chile, the Thirty Meter Telescope is starting construction now on Mauna Kea in Hawaii, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is getting ready to start taking data hopefully sometime next year and many more are in the pipeline and design stages.

And all of them depend on collecting photons that push their design limits. To see things like planets around other stars, the first stars ever to shine in the universe, the first galaxies ever to form anywhere, and to look for faint technosignatures of any civilizations that might be out there, we have to have as clear a view as possible and looking through this is not helpful.

Not to mention the telescopes that we amateur astronomers have in our backyards. Imagine you’ve spent an evening getting a long-exposure shot of the Ring Nebula and while it was collecting light, several satellites streaked through the frame.

Can these artifacts be removed? of course they can, but it comes at the cost of data accuracy, the error bars of measurements go up whenever you heavily process an image and when you’re already at the limits of the optical system, this can have a real detrimental effect on the quality of the data. You can’t just use the Healing brush in Photoshop to take the satellite trails out, the data would be all but wiped out as well.

But that’s not all, remember when I used to always say the future of astronomy is in the infrared? Well that was 10 years ago and that future is here, IR telescopes are currently transforming our understanding of the universe. The future of astronomy now lies in the radio with telescopes like ALMA and the Square kilometer array. The star link satellites and others like it will be transmitting in a frequency band very close to one commonly used for astronomy and will likely cause interference.

This might actually be more of an issue than the satellite trails in an optical image, depending on the shielding they put into them.

And yes, I hear you, making space more profitable is a great way towards expanding to the stars and I absolutely support companies trying to do just that. But I don’t support an everything goes approach either. As the IDSA rightly points out, the night sky is a resource and treasure for all of us to enjoy and in the same way that companies should not be allowed to start mining the Grand Canyon, or ripping apart the cloud forests of Costa Rica to make room for industry, so too careful thought should be given to the night sky.

Can there be a balance between the competing interests of companies like SpaceX, Amazon and Facebook who want to bring internet connectivity to everyone, although I don’t think they want to do it for purely altruistic reasons, with the needs of the rest of us - many who have already lost our dark skies to cities - who need an unobstructed view of the heavens in our efforts to learn more about our place in the universe?

The solution, whatever it is, won’t be easy to come by, but we absolutely have to start talking about it now. At the very least, I think we have to stop stuff like this: remember Humanity Star? It was a bright disco ball that went up last year for no other reason than to be bright and reflective. That was completely unnecessary and let’s all just agree not to do that again, shall we?

There’s also the company that wants to put billboards in space, should we allow that? At some point, astronomical research from the ground will become all but impossible if these things are left unchecked, so talking about it now is key.

Well that’s it for now Space Fans, thanks to Deep Astronomy Patreon Patrons who keep these videos coming, and thanks to all of you for watching and as always, Keep Looking Up! Even if it is through a veil of satellites….

Further Reading:

https://aas.org/media/press-releases/aas-issues-position-statement-satellite-constellations
https://www.darksky.org/starlink-response/
https://iau.org/public/images/detail/ann19035a/
https://twitter.com/Alex_Parker/status/1132163931378610178
https://twitter.com/cgbassa/status/1132551806125522945
https://stuffin.space


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