Late last year, after SpaceX launched its first batches of internet-beeaming Starlink satellites, the project immediately drew criticism from astronomers who complained that the dishes’ brightness interfered with scientific observation. Looking for a quick solution, SpaceX tested several methods to reduce Starlink satellites’ brightness. And starting June, all newly launched satellites have been equipped with a sunlight-blocking visor so that they are less visible in the sky.
But scientists say that’s not good enough. A report published Tuesday by the Satellite Constellations 1 (Satcon1) workshop, a research project backed more than 250 astronomers, found that the giant constellation of Starlink satellites will severely interfere with ground-based scientific observation when they are fully deployed.
“We find that the worst-case constellation designs prove extremely impactful to the most severely affected science programs,” says the report.
SpaceX has obtained permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 12,000 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit. The company has plans to launch tens of thousands more and has applied for priority spectrum rights to additional satellites with the FCC.
“Starlink alone may roughly double the number of space-based moving objects detectable by the unaided eye around twilight,” the Satcon1 report noted.
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Options to reduce the impact, scientists say, include “darken them,” “orient them to reflect less sunlight” (so as to remove satellite trails visible in the sky), “keep them low,” and, on the top of the list, “don’t launch them.”
In 2020 so far, SpaceX has been launching Starlink satellites at the pace of about 100 satellites every month and has no intention of slowing down or scaling back on the project. The Elon Musk-owned space company said it’s working with various organizations, including the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NROA) and the Green Bank Observatory (GBO) to minimize the impact of Starlink satellites.
“With tens of thousands of low-Earth orbit satellites, we find that generally no combination of mitigations can completely avoid the impacts of satellite trails on the science programs of the coming generation of optical astronomy facilities,” Tony Tyson, a physics professor at the University of California, Davis, told the Independent, which first reported the Satcon1 study.