Astronomers Worry That Elon Musk's New Satellites Will Ruin The View

17 hours ago
Originally published on June 3, 2019 6:43 pm

Victoria Girgis was leading a public outreach session at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., when one of her guests noticed a string of lights moving high overhead.

"Occasionally, you'll see satellites, and they look kind of like shooting stars moving through the sky," Girgis says. "But this was a whole line of them all moving together."

The guest hadn't spotted a UFO invasion. Rather, it was the first installment of billionaire Elon Musk's vision for the future: a constellation of satellites known as Starlink that's meant to provide Internet to the entire planet.

On May 23, Musk's company SpaceX launched a rocket that carried 60 Starlink satellites into orbit. The 500-pound satellites fanned out like a deck of cards. From the ground, they looked like a glittering string whizzing across the arc of the sky.

The crowd watched as the satellites moved in front of the small telescope Girgis had trained on some distant galaxies. The bright satellites created over two dozen streaks across an image she was taking.

"My first immediate reaction was, 'That's visually kind of cool,'" she says. "But my second reaction was, 'Man you can't see a single galaxy.' "

The picture was useless.

In the days after the launch, similar images and videos began to pop up on social media. "All of those videos and pictures delighted the public," says Jessie Christiansen, an astronomer at Caltech. "But it horrified the astronomy community."

The Starlink satellites streak across a photo of distant galaxies taken by the Lowell Observatory.
Victoria Girgis / Lowell Observatory

Professional astronomers are trying to take lots of pictures of really faint things far out in space. While they've had to contend with satellites in the past, Starlink is something different entirely, says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer with the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard and the Smithsonian. The constellation will be made up of as many as 12,000 satellites. That's "potentially as many visible satellites moving around on a dark night as there are stars visible," McDowell says.

Like many of SpaceX's plans, the Starlink program is on an aggressive path. By the end of the year, Musk says, there could be hundreds of satellites in orbit.

"We should have been having these discussions 10 years ago," McDowell says. "This problem sort of snuck up on us much faster than we expected."

SpaceX is not the only company looking at developing a global constellation. Other companies, including Amazon, are planning similar constellations. Space is about to get much more crowded, and there's not a lot that astronomers can do about it. Although space companies are regulated by national governments, and the U.N. does have a treaty on the peaceful use of space, there's no obvious forum for this kind of issue.

"Space is still a little bit of the Wild West," Christiansen says. "We're still trying to figure out who owns it and who gets to make the rules."

SpaceX says it expects the satellites to grow dimmer as they reach their final orbits, and it's looking into other ways to minimize the glare problem. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory says it has been working with SpaceX to minimize the impact. The International Astronomical Union, meanwhile, has encouraged national regulators to take the astronomical community's concerns into account.

McDowell says he's encouraged by the company's response. "I think there's room without regulation for a cooperative effort between the astronomy community and the Space X and other operators of mega constellations," he says.

But he says he also hopes the launch will trigger a broader conversation: "As a planet, we need at the global-governance level to have this discussion of how we manage the night sky as a resource."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In late May, the commercial spaceflight company SpaceX launched a rocket.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three, two, one, zero. Ignition. Liftoff.

SHAPIRO: About an hour later, that rocket released 60 satellites.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They really are just slowly fanning out like a deck of cards into space.

SHAPIRO: The satellites are the first part of a massive constellation that will bring the Internet to every corner of the planet, and as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, it may forever change our view of the heavens.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Victoria Girgis does public education at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. And a couple of nights after SpaceX launched all those satellites, she saw them - a bunch of little dots moving into line across the sky.

VICTORIA GIRGIS: And they actually just crossed right in front of where the telescope was pointed.

BRUMFIEL: The telescope was a small one - Girgis uses it to show celestial objects to the observatory's guests. That night, she was trying to photograph some faint galaxies. The bright satellites created over two dozen streaks across the image.

GIRGIS: My first immediate reaction was that's visually kind of cool. But my second reaction was, man, you can't see a single galaxy.

BRUMFIEL: The picture was basically ruined. Now, Girgis wasn't the only one to notice this. In the days after the launch, images and videos began to pop up on social media. Jessie Christiansen is an astronomer at Caltech.

JESSIE CHRISTIANSEN: All of those videos and pictures delighted the public, but it horrified the astronomy community because it was like, wait, that's bad.

BRUMFIEL: Bad because professional astronomers are trying to take lots of pictures of really faint things far out in space. And believe it or not, none of them thought these satellites were going to be a problem.

CHRISTIANSEN: Nobody really realized until after launch that they were going to be so bright.

BRUMFIEL: But the satellites are bright. And here's the thing - SpaceX is just getting started. The company plans on launching a total of nearly 12,000 satellites to provide global Internet. Other companies, including Amazon, are planning similar constellations. Space is about to get much more crowded, and Christiansen says there's not a lot astronomers can do about it.

CHRISTIANSEN: Space is still a little bit of the Wild West, right? We're still working out who owns it and who gets to make the rules.

BRUMFIEL: In a statement, SpaceX says it expects the satellites to grow dimmer as they reach their final orbits. And it's looking into other ways to minimize the glare problem. That will help, Christiansen says, but she also thinks the night sky is about to undergo a very big change.

CHRISTIANSEN: I think with, you know, 12,000 low-Earth orbit bright satellites, now it'll be, like, hard to find the things that stay still. You're not going to see the same sky anymore. It'll be really interesting. It'll, you know, it'll be a cultural shift.

BRUMFIEL: On the bright side, we'll have good Internet.

CHRISTIANSEN: We will. And, you know, honestly, there's 10,000 astronomers in the world. We shouldn't stack up against the total sum of humanity, right? There are 7 billion people in the world. And the Internet is an incredible gift. It can be used for so much good.

BRUMFIEL: If SpaceX succeeds, that good will soon include cat videos anywhere on earth. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.