The satellites could not only obstruct our view of the universe, but they also make it harder for astronomers to observe far away objects. Starlink solar arrays capture and reflect sunlight making them easy to see from Earth at times. (Photo from SpaceX)
Aiming to create a low-cost high-performance satellite bus in an effort to implement a new space-based internet system, SpaceX’s Starlink is supposed to be good. Unfortunately, it could be problematic for astronomers. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center's Jonathan McDowell and others have noted that the internet satellites are so bright they could case a “problem" for astronomy. It would triple the number of satellites in orbit and could impact our view of the night sky.
The first batch of satellites were launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and deployed to orbit by a Falcon 9 rocket on May 23. Each has a single solar array, which both captures and bounces sunlight off the satellites and can sometimes be seen from Earth as a result. Looking at video footage shows beams of light moving across the sky looking more like a night train than a group of satellites. Luckily, the footage shows satellites that haven’t finished orienting their solar panels, making them extra bright. So, the problem isn’t as bad as initially feared. And while you may see the lights if you’re looking for them, they won’t hog up the night sky forever.
Starlink satellites are designed to fall back to Earth after roughly five years in flight. "The satellites are meant to put themselves in a re-entry orbit at the end of their mission life, and remove themselves from the debris population by burning up," says Alice Gorman, space archeologist at Flinders University, Australia. This doesn’t mean these bright object won’t obstruct our view of the universe.
When the sun reflects off the satellites' solar panels, astronomers will have to account for the appearance of the satellites in their images. However, the satellites will position their solar panels as they establish themselves in orbit, which should reduce their brightness. SpaceX also says they plan to address the issue. While they say that Starlink “has no material effect” on astronomy, Elon Musk says he’ll ask the team to reduce the reflectivity of the satellites going forward. He’s even open to the idea of mounting telescopes on Starlink bodies to provide a clearer view of space.
It’s good to know the company is aware of the issue and it’s something they shouldn’t take lightly. Though they claim Starlink won’t have adverse effects, they’ll still pose issues for astronomers if they’re not fixed. Since the satellites operate close to frequencies radio astronomers use to study space, it’ll make it harder for them to study far away objects. Not to mention, there are about 5,000 satellites in orbit around Earth and 2,000 of which are still functioning. These are already headaches for astronomers. The addition of the Starlink constellation will only make their job harder.
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