SpaceX Satellites Polluting Astronomers’ View?

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It’s hard enough being a stargazer these days. Unless you live on a mountaintop, the middle of the desert, or on a tiny island in the Pacific, your view of our galaxy, let alone the rest of the observable universe is not great.  Light from everywhere pollutes our view of the night sky.  For professional astronomers, light pollution means setting up observatories in the types of locations mentioned above is necessary.  Now they have another problem to contend with – the glow from SpaceX satellites polluting their view. 

The SpaceX Satellite Fleet

SpaceX's Falcon 9 Rocket on the launchpad

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 Rocket

Last week SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket loaded with 60 Starlink internet satellites.  The deployment represents the first wave of what SpaceX says will be a constellation an armada of over 12,000 such satellites by the middle of the next decade.  The satellites make up the next generation of internet technology.  As such, they have the potential to revolutionize the way the internet works across the globe.  

Let’s talk about the internet for a moment…

Atlantic Submarine Cable System

Atlantic Submarine Cable System

Just for a moment, I promise.  We won’t discuss trolls, Rule 34, or the prevalence of people with tinfoil hats on social media.  Instead, let’s talk about the actual infrastructure of the internet.  Right now, believe it or not, it runs on cables.  Yep.  Giant cables run across the Atlantic and other oceans and seas and connect the continents.  Yes, some internet traffic uses satellites.  However, nearly all of it travels via undersea cables.  SpaceX’s satellite constellation aims to solve multiple problems with that current infrastructure.  One of which is sharks.  Seriously; sharks are trying to eat the internet.  

SpaceX Satellites and The Internet

I worked as a satellite communications technician in the military from 2001 – 2007. I know a thing or two about how satellites work.  With any type of terrestrial long-distance communications network, the environment presents myriad challenges.  Mesoamerican or Greek sprinters carrying messages found terrain to be an issue.  Centuries later the Pony Express faced the same problem until the telegraph came along in the nineteenth century. 

Cables limit communications systems, though  The environment – especially harsh wilderness – causes all kinds of issues.  Radio, when it was invented, helped to solve many of the problems created by cables.  Provided one had line-of-sight with the receiving antenna, radio signals went farther than many cable systems could.  The main problem with radio was distance. 

How SpaceX satellites will save the internet from sharks…

Before satellites, the military found a method called troposcatter to deal with this problem. Basically, they bounced radio signals off of the troposphere like a pool ball off of a bumper to get around the curve or the Earth or mountains, or whatever else stood in the way.  It increased the range of wireless communications by hundreds of miles.  Then satellites came along.

Satellites replaced troposcatter communications in military applications in the 1970s, and since then the tech has only gotten better.

With over 12,000 linked satellites, SpaceX’s Starlink constellation will ensure more clear, consistent and quick communications.  Also, moving most of the internet saves it from sharks.  Sure, space junk will attack it instead, but that’s a problem for later.

The More Satellites the Better, Theoretically.

SpaceX Starlink Constellation concept.

SpaceX Starlink Constellation concept.

If a cable breaks, the connection is gone.  That cable has to be fixed or replaced.  Now, there is a lot of redundancy built into our current networks, but repairs still take a lot of man-hours and are difficult.  With over 12,000 satellites, SpaceX’s constellation would help to mitigate that.  If one satellite goes down, it’s not hard to switch to another one next to it.

But There’s Enough Junk in Space, Isn’t There?

Yeah, there’s a lot of it.  And that brings us back to the point of today’s article.  Is the benefit of the 12,000 satellites Elon Musk says are totally not going to be a problem worth the problems that astronomers and others are worried about?  I’ve been covering SpaceX a lot lately, and I’m fascinated by the progress they’ve been making.  Still, I do worry about the number of objects we’re throwing into orbit.

According to Musk, the SpaceX satellites in the Starlink constellation are only designed to last five years, so any particular batch won’t be cluttering up the sky for long.  Also, astronomers’ initial fears about the visibility of the satellites were soothed somewhat once the solar panels were configured properly.  They became less reflective, though still visible. 

Musk has been receptive to concerns thus far, saying that he vows to make future versions even less reflective.  He also says he’s committed to the constellation having no visible effect on the night sky – unless you’re specifically looking for it.  Other potential good news for astronomers is the fact that Musk has said he’s open to the idea of mounting telescopes on the exteriors of the SpaceX satellites.  This could open up a whole new realm of exploration for professional and amateur astronomers alike.  If Elon Musk does what he says he’s going to do.  

The Outlook…

For now, the overall impact of the SpaceX satellites in the Starlink constellation remains to be seen.  The subject brings up many interesting questions and possibilities, though.  For example, how do 12,000 satellites cope with all of the other space junk that’s floating around in low orbit?  Or, if Musk decides to mount telescopes on them, will access to those scopes be available to the public?  One way or the other, we’ll have to keep our eyes on the sky to find out. 

Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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