SpaceX Will Dim New Starlink Satellites for Astronomers

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SpaceX Starlink Satellites Coated With Special Material Will Be Less Reflective and Disruptive to Astronomers’ View.

It’s not the worst P.R. problem SpaceX has ever had, to be sure, but it is a big deal. The company plans to put as many as 40,000 Starlink satellites into a constellation in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). These satellites have the potential to block the night sky for many earthbound astronomers—professional and amateur alike. By way of comparison, only a couple thousand satellites currently orbit Earth. On the whole, they rarely cause issues for terrestrial telescopes because of the distances between them.

SpaceX’s Starlink Satellite Constellation, however, will encompass the globe in communication satellites. For its part, SpaceX won’t comment on the exact number of satellites it plans to launch yet. Early estimates were set at around 12,000—still six times more satellites than are currently up there. Then the company applied for permission to launch up to 40,000 satellites. On the other hand, Musk has said that Starlink could be commercial operational and viable with only around a thousand satellites. So one really doesn’t know how many they’re going to launch, only that it’ll be a significant number of new satellites cluttering up the night sky.

The Problem is Already Real

SpaceX already launched 120 Starlink satellites, and the video above shows how the reflection from those satellites interferes with telescopes here on Earth. 

Astronomers’ concerns, however, aren’t falling on deaf ears. According to SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell, “We didn’t think of it. The astronomy community didn’t think of it.” She added, however, that once reports started coming in, the company started working on ways to fix the problem. That fix involves covering the new Starlink satellites with a non-reflective coating that should lessen their impact on astronomers. Shotwell continued, “WE want to make sure we do the right thing to make sure little kids can look through their telescope. Astronomy is one of the few things that gets little kids excited about space.” 

Of course, the kids are important. They are, after all, the future of astronomy. But dimming the Starlink satellites will make life easier for professional astronomers, as well. This is crucial when it comes to efforts to spot threats in space, like, say, giant asteroids and the like.

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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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