One of the most common questions I recently get from those on the Coast is: “what are those Starlink train satellites we see at night?”
If you go out in the early evening, just after sunset, you may look up and see a number of lights travelling in a row, one after the other. Sometimes you can count up to 60 of them in one period. These form what is called the Starlink satellite train.
Starlink is a project from the mind of Elon Musk and his SpaceX Corporation. They plan to offer high speed internet to every corner of the globe via the use of these satellites. They will be offering broadband services for customers by mid-2020.
In addition, SpaceX will also provide satellites for businesses and governments, including possible tracking of commercial planes and ships.
While these satellites hold potentially huge benefits, they also come with a few serious issues.
SpaceX plan on launching 1584 satellites by the end of the year, with 302 currently in orbit. The final estimate is around 42,000 satellites in orbit to cover the globe. This creates an enormous amount of space clutter and would create massive problems in trying to find clear space for launching rockets. What if they collided with one of these satellites?
It gets worse when you consider that we have a number of manned missions planned to the moon and to Mars. Should one of those rockets hit a satellite, the consequences for those on board could be catastrophic. The large number of launched satellites have already had a huge impact on the astronomical community.
Astronomers claim that the number of visible satellites will outnumber visible stars, and that their brightness in both optical and radio wavelengths will severely impact scientific observations. Already there have been a number of astrophotography images showing the impact that these satellites have had on optical astronomy.
The International Astronomical Union and National Radio Astronomy Observatory have released official statements expressing concern. It has recently been reported that the Russian Academy of Sciences will file a complaint with the United Nations regarding Starlink.
And now educators at NASA have launched a project that asks for the public’s help documenting these satellite streaks as part of a long-term effort to study how the technology will change our night sky. Anyone with a modern smartphone and a tripod can contribute to the ‘Satellite Streak Watcher project’.
Recently Elon Musk has said that SpaceX are looking into ways of reducing the albedo (brightness) of the satellites and will provide on-demand orientation adjustments for astronomical experiments, if necessary.
The problems don’t stop there.
In addition to Starlink, another company, OneWeb, has already started launching their constellation of satellites and they face competitors such as Amazon’s Project Kuiper service, Telesat, and potentially other companies such as Lynk and Facebook.
One thing is certain: ground-based astronomy will never be the same again. A solution needs to be found, which balances the science of astronomy and the technology of communications. Is this even possible?
On a clear evening, look up into the sky and see whether you can spot these satellite trains. Then pause and consider the awesomeness of the ideas behind it, as well as the potential damage it could do to astronomy.