The Starlink constellation being currently developed by SpaceX is on course to become a real game changer. These images show a batch of 60 more of their satellites being deployed on April 22, 2020. If you take a close look at them, you will notice something special.
Those brand new satellites look… Well, very shiny. For the first days post-deployment the satellites ride the night sky in a shinny dotted line formation as they increase their altitudes to the desired one. What a gorgeous celestial ornament.
There is a problem, however. The total number of already deployed satellites is 422… Out of the nearly 12,000 planned — with a possible later extension to 42,000.
With the goal of having at least one of the satellites available in each spot of the sky, each of them will be able to provide Internet connection to anyone at almost any point on Earth with a latency of 25 milliseconds and 1 gigabit per second — or the same type of connections premium providers in major cities offer now. The completion of the project will be something truly revolutionary, especially on lesser developed areas in continents such as Africa or Asia.
Every human being will finally be able to have access to quality Internet. But as we all know every magic comes with a price. Are we willing to pay the price such a feat entails?
OBJECTIVITY ISSUES – CONTROVERSY
The Starlink Constellation Project has made news headlines both within and outside of the scientific community but, when tackling the issue, there always seems to be a lack of objectivity.
When researching the topic I came to find some kind of pattern worth noticing: Reports made by first world countries have a clear trend of being in some way or another against the project as the shiny satellites get in the way of astronomical observations (either professional or amateur) — while third world countries seem to ignore all warnings from the scientific community and celebrate Musk’s initiative.
CREATING A MIDDLE GROUND
To begin with, shiny satellite constellations in the sky aren’t really anything new. Mid 2019 there were already 200 satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) that could interfere with astronomical observations. Still far from the 14.000 Starlink is aiming for but nonetheless worth mentioning.
Iridium was another like-constellation whose satellites began to be deorbited as the project kept running into problems and never really became a great deal. However, those satellites could be tracked and its position could be predicted as Heaven Above’s web page did.
When flying over the night sky, Iridium satellites could reach an apparent magnitude of -9. This means the perceived brightness from an observer’s point of view down on Earth of the Iridium sats was -9. Starlink satellites have an apparent magnitude of 4-6.
This – apparent magnitude – may be the key to tackle the debate. The lower the value, the higher the brightness, and vice versa. For example, the Sun has a magnitude of -27 and the Full Moon has a magnitude of -13. Sirius, the brightest star in the sky has a magnitude of -1 and the Polar Star, +2.
Positive Six, +6, is the most our eyes can see. That means you could perhaps get to see a Starlink satellite for a few seconds when the sunlight hit it at the right angle – if – weather conditions were good enough (That is, of course, excluding the first days after deployment as they reraise to their target orbit). Needless to say, this wouldn’t be possible in urban areas with all their light pollution.
Nights under the stars will remain the same, then. It´s true that while the constellation is being deployed, a satellite train will be seen every other week for a short period of time only once a night.
The problem is that your eyes are very small so your lenses can only focus so much light. That’s why over the last couple hundred years we’ve been making bigger eyes, some various tens of meters wide. These eyes can see as much as +27 degrees of apparent magnitude and that’s when Starlink satellites really become visible and a real obstacle for astronomical observations, the key to unraveling the mysteries the universe holds.
Yet Starlink satellites don’t only affect observations based on light, they also interfere with radio frequencies we study to understand cosmic phenomena such as pulsar stars and the cosmic microwave background — the landmark evidence of the Big Bang origin of the universe. Not to mention the amount of space junk the satellite constellation could generate.
DEALING WITH THE PROBLEM
Until recently, whenever telescopes were to be used, observatories would call one of the many space agencies and they would provide a time frame during which no satellite would fly by. This was possible due to the reduced number of satellites in orbit.
But SpaceX’s Starlink constellation is on a whole new level. Not only does its number of units ridicule the current TOTAL amount of satellites in orbit (which greatly reduces the time frame of ‘clear skies’) but they are also capable of altering their orbits to best adapt to customer demand and other conditions, thus making tracking completely unpredictable.
For those reasons, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) had to step up and issue a statement showing concerns for the consequences such a project would have, not only issuing SpaceX but others such as Amazon’s Project Kuipier.
SpaceX rapidly responded and in the Starlink launch following IAU’s statement a DarkSat (A satellite with a dark coating) was deployed among the other 59 early January 2020. This decreased the apparent magnitude by only 0.8, so SpaceX again designed a shield that should block most of the satellite´s light reflections. Said prototype, the VisorSat, will be deployed on the upcoming Starlink launch today, Wednesday 3rd, 2020.
Following launches will improve upon the knowledge gained from the VisorSat and most likely will have all satellites shielded as well.
All of the remaining ‘normal’ satellites in orbit will still indeed still remain a problem, not for very long though. Their lifespan ranges from 5 to 7 years and the propulsion system used to alter their orbits can also be used to deorbit them. This way not only the ‘light problem’ is solved, but the space junk one too.
This could have obviously been prevented had SpaceX deployed fewer satellites on the first launches to scout for unconsidered problems, and the effectiveness of VisorSat is yet to be proven. For a while, the most delicate astronomical observations will still be affected by the problem.
For all those reasons, SpaceX agreed to modify the satellite’s orbit and tweak their orientation (similar as when they fly toward higher orbits, when they’re the brightest) by making the solar panels edge-on relative to Earth each orbiter will reflect much less sunlight back toward the ground — whenever an institution needs to have the skies cleared.
SpaceX will also begin to use radio frequencies that won’t interfere with those from ground observatories.
At first glance everything looks great on paper. We shall see how things unfold but SpaceX most likely will do as many tweaks as needed to overcome these problems, specially with Elon Musk as its CEO who one could argue understands better than anyone how negative it could be to trap humanity, its knowledge and its consciousness on Earth by filling the space with orbiting junk.
Amateur astronomers will take the worst bite as it will be harder for them to get a hold of Elon and ask him to clear the skies for them.
Many argue the sky is World Heritage and Musk and other agencies have claimed it for themselves although the same could be said for Thomas Edison and the lightbulb centuries ago, yet every single one of us has perpetuated his deed with all the light pollution produced in every part of this inhabited world.
In many cases, the consequences this has been far worse than those Starlink satellites may have.
We’ve reached the point where personal thoughts take over. The Starlink controversy sets the beginning of a new chapter humanity would inevitably reach sooner or later.
Progress led us out of the savannah, across deserts and oceans. Progress got our cities lit at night and it soon will take us to the stars. Starlink goes beyond providing quality Internet to anyone thus unifying humanity more than ever, just think about what its name suggests… Star-link.
Space is becoming undeniably more accessible each year thanks to the efforts of the increasing number of private groups like SpaceX and has become an essential place for humanity to thrive in modern society we live in. This is only the first step of the true, slower, maybe less spectacular than the Apollo program, but in many cases, a more firm — leap we’re taking towards a new era.
To meet Starlink goals we could look at other alternatives such as having giant antennas scattered across the globe, millions of kilometers of cables laid all over every area without service, yet then the environmental and economic impact measures like this would have would be far greater.
Then maybe we shouldn’t be questioning Spacex or getting mad at Elon Musk or Thomas Edison, rather ask ourselves what we’re striving for as a society. This is a subjective topic to talk about, but I believe we’re witnessing an essential transition period towards an era where we won’t have to worry about satellites, light pollution or even atmosphere getting in our way.
The progress unchained by Starlink will take us and our telescopes to grand space stations orbiting the Earth and Moon and to bases in other celestial bodies like asteroids and Mars, allowing humanity to look into the darkest skies it has ever seen.
Thank you for reading.