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A total of 420 of Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites are now in low Earth orbit, promising new internet-from-space services, but leaving many astronomers aghast.
Cast your eyes up to the night sky in these pollution-free times here in Europe and you may very well see a train of satellites cruising across the stars.
They are visible without any special equipment, a distinct succession of lights against the blackness. These objects are the beginnings of the Starlink constellation, a privately-owned venture from Elon Musk’s SpaceX company promising to offer high-quality internet connections from space.
The latest launch, on 22nd April, saw 60 satellites placed into orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket, bringing the total aloft to 420, enough to start the roll-out of basic services. It’s not entirely clear how many Starlink satellites will be launched, although it could rise to above 12,000 – enough for astronomers to see red.
German amateur astrophotographer Marcel Nowaczyk told Euronews: “From my point of view it is frustrating when you have to delete 25 per cent of your pictures during an imaging session. I’m a bit afraid of our future view of the night sky when there are 10,000 of them in orbit.”
Long-exposure photographs are the bread and butter of astrophotographers, and Starlink tends to leave large white lines right across their pictures. Some are enjoying the spectacle, others are not.
Professor Mark McCaughrean, senior advisor for science and exploration at the European Space Agency (ESA) told Euronews: “I have to admit that personally, they make me nauseous. They just keep coming for many minutes, endlessly crossing the sky, drawing the eye’s attention, and occasionally flaring brighter than every star in the sky to boot.”
Starlink needs so many satellites because the system hands over connectivity between the spacecraft as they fly overhead, meaning faster speeds for customers on the ground.
The first phase will see around 1,600 satellites flying at 550 kilometres in altitude. Compare that to the geostationary satellites delivering television signals to Earth from a point 36,000 kilometres away.
SpaceX is aware of the astronomers’ concerns and says it’s addressing them with anti-reflective surfaces on newer satellites – in short, it will paint them black – and what’s described as a “sunshade” to reduce the reflection from satellites in the future.
Astronomer Jonathan McDowell from the Centre for Astrophysics (Harvard & Smithsonian) told Euronews he was “concerned about the potential that large numbers of bright satellites could both ruin professional observations and affect the look of the night sky”.
However he said he was “encouraged by the measures that SpaceX are now taking to reduce that impact – they have clearly been listening to our concerns”.
Longer-term the reflectivity issue that now makes Starlink so easy to spot may be partially overcome, but experts are still concerned about the risk of collision posed by a massive privately-run constellation in such a crowded orbital zone.
The “final frontier” of space has historically been a bit of a free-for-all, and after more than 60 years of launches the orbital pathways close to our planet are crowded with millions of small fragments of spacecraft, travelling out of control.
Dutch space debris expert Dr Marco Langbroek messaged to say that he is concerned about space safety as future Starlink launches loom.
“The sight of those passing in file over a ~20-minute timespan, 5-8 of them visible at the same time, almost looks like Science Fiction: the Mothership unloading the invasion fleet,” he joked.