Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Reflective Satellite Clusters Created by Private Companies Are Impeding Astronomers’ Work and Altering the Night Sky

Marina Koren, the Atlantic:

Before Starlink launched, SpaceX coordinated with the National Science Foundation and its radio-astronomy observatories to make sure there wouldn’t be any overlap. Unfortunately for optical astronomers, there is no such framework when it comes to the brightness of satellites — no international body in Geneva, let alone a dedicated agency in the United States. The Federal Communications Commission’s regulatory realm spans communication networks across multiple industries, which means its oversight includes, oddly enough, both satellites and offensive Super Bowl commercials. But while American satellites need the agency’s permission to launch, the FCC does not regulate the appearance of those satellites once they’re in orbit.

[…]

In the months since they first launched, the Starlink satellites have been essentially photobombing ground-based telescopes. Their reflectiveness can saturate detectors, overwhelming them, which can ruin frames and leave ghost imprints on others. Vivienne Baldassare’s work depends on comparing images taken night after night and looking for nearly imperceptible variations in light; the slightest shifts could reveal the existence of a black hole at the center of a glittering, distant galaxy. Baldassare, an astronomer at Yale, can’t see behind the streak of a satellite. “You can’t just subtract that off,” she says. Some objects, such as comets, are better viewed during dawn and dusk, when there’s just enough sunlight to illuminate them. But because they orbit close to Earth, the Starlink satellites can be seen during these hours, too; imagine missing a comet as it passes uncomfortably close to Earth because of too many satellites.

Koren says that SpaceX will launch over a thousand satellites just this year, while Amazon wants to launch over three thousand in the coming years, and OneWeb is launching a little over six hundred. There are presently only about two thousand artificial satellites orbiting the Earth right now; the additions from just the three aforementioned companies would triple the number of orbiting satellites, and that doesn’t count the ones that SpaceX has already launched.

It is impressive that it is somehow becoming increasingly trivial to get a robot orbiting the Earth. But I’m tangentially reminded of the incident at WWDC 2010 where there were hundreds of spontaneous WiFi networks that interrupted Steve Jobs’ iPhone 4 demo. What happens when we blanket the globe in private satellites with little accountability for their live operation and eventual death as space junk?