Will SpaceX’s Starlink Satellites Destroy Scientific Studies?

By any measure, SpaceX deploying 60 satellites in a single launch of a Falcon 9 was a triumph.

The satellites are a prototype of a system that eventually be a nearly 12,000 satellite constellation that will bring high speed internet to every corner of the Earth.

The Starlink, as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk calls it, will be a game changer in telecommunication, bringing billions of people into the world wide web.

Incidentally, the system, when up and running in the mid-2020s, will make Musk a lot of money, as much as $40 billion a year.

Since Musk’s ultimate lifelong goal is to establish a human settlement on Mars, that amount of cash will do nicely.

The 60 satellites also provided a pretty nighttime sight for a number of parts of the world, moving across the dark sky like a string of pearls.

However, therein resides a problem. Musk is being accused of causing light pollution, which will complicate the science of ground-based astronomy.

As Geekwire reports, the Starlink system, not to mention similar systems being planned by other companies, may blot out the night sky, at the very least complicating ground-based astronomy and at worse, rendering it all but impossible.

A Twitter argument has erupted between supporters of SpaceX, who don’t think that once the Starlink constellation is at its operational altitude and are spaced out that it will complicate ground-based astronomy and astronomers who say, in effect, yes it will.

Some of the discussion, this being social media, has become quite heated, with some accusing Musk of “polluting” the night sky without anyone’s permission.

One does not have to be an expert in environmental law to predict where the discussion may lead to. Environmentalists and developers have been fighting one another in the courts for decades.

One can imagine a coalition of people and groups taking SpaceX to court to enjoin him from building Starlink, at least unless and until he jumps through a lot of legal hoops.

The task of filing environmental impact statements could take years.

The future of instant internet for the world, not to mention Musk’s dream of a Mars colony, could be deferred for decades or even forever.

Musk seems to be aware on the train wreck that may await him.

At first, he tweeted, “There are already 4900 satellites in orbit, which people notice ~0% of the time. Starlink won’t be seen by anyone unless looking very carefully & will have ~0% impact on advancements in astronomy.

We need to move telescopes to orbit anyway. Atmospheric attenuation is terrible.”

Eric Ralph, a space news reporter for Teslarati, was compelled to disagree.

“I am all for Starlink for the many potential benefits it may bring, but I think you may be downplaying the potential for disruption.

Of those ~5000 satellites in orbit, maybe 800-1000 are in LEO. Way too early to jump to conclusions but you may want to dive a bit deeper.”

Musk responded, “If we need to tweak sat orientation to minimize solar reflection during critical astronomical experiments, that’s easily done. Most orbital objects are close to Earth btw.”

Stephen Bates, a self-described space advocate, added another fly in the ointment.

“It seems that radio astronomers also have concerns about the RF band(s) Starlink operates on. I’m totally ignorant as to how these work, but are there a range of frequencies to choose from? Is it possible to minimize disruption when passing over arrays?”

To which Musk responded, “Yes, already planned. We avoid use of certain lower Ku frequencies specifically for radio astronomy.”

He added in another tweet, “we’ll make sure Starlink has no material effect on discoveries in astronomy. We care a great deal about science.”

The SpaceX CEO also reacted favorably to a suggestion that he deploy a number of space telescopes on Starlink-style satellites as a sweetener to the astronomy community.

He also responded to another suggestion about reducing the “albedo”, a term referring to light or radiation reflected by celestial objects. “–sent a note to Starlink team last week specifically regarding albedo reduction. We’ll get a better sense of value of this when satellites have raised orbits & arrays are tracking to sun.”

Social media has been rightly seen as a source of a great deal of unhappiness and anger.

But Elon Musk seems to be using Twitter for the opposite effect, to sooth anger and, hopefully, arrive at some kind of consensus.

The future of SpaceX and dreams of colonizing Mars depends on him succeeding.