SpaceX and Starlink are changing the night sky and fast

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This image of a group of distant galaxies from the Lowell Observatory in Arizona is marked by diagonal lines of the Starlink satellite trails shortly after its launch in May.

Victoria Girgis / Lowell Observatory

Astronomer Cees Bassa spends a lot of time working with advanced radio telescopes aimed at deep space. But on May 24, 2019, he went outside near the famous Dwingeloo Radio Observatory of the Netherlands and instead pointed a small video camera at the night sky.

It was more than enough to pick up a train with more than 50 bright lights moving in formation. This was one of the first recordings of the SpaceX Starlink constellation. The company had launched its first full batch of 60 broadband satellites less than 24 hours earlier.

SpaceX is looking to send thousands of satellites to the low Earth orbit in order to cover the planet with broadband Internet access to which anyone can connect (for a price) from almost anywhere.

Bassa tweeted the video with enthusiasm, calling it a "fantastic view" and "a must see."

But then he started running the numbers. He estimated that once there are about 1,600 Starlink satellites in orbit, up to 15 of the bright lights will be visible for most of the night in much of Asia, North America and Europe during the summer.

"Even in spring, autumn and winter, about half a dozen Starlink The satellites will be visible at any time up to three hours before sunrise and three hours after sunset. Depending on how bright they end up being, this will have a dramatic impact on the character of the night sky. " he wrote In May.

At the end of 2019, it became clear that Starlink satellites are more reflective than SpaceX or astronomers expected.

"What surprised everyone, mainly, by surprise was the absolute brightness," Jeffrey C. Hall of the Lowell Observatory told reporters at a meeting of the Astronomical Society of the United States in January.

With SpaceX will launch 60 more satellites on Sunday, there could be about 300 of the routers orbiting the sky next week. The company points to almost 1,600 by the end of 2020. And this is only the beginning.

SpaceX has the approval of the FCC to launch almost 12,000 of the satellites in total and has submitted documents to the International Telecommunications Union indicating that it would like throw 30,000 Besides that.

For a small context, it is estimated that humanity has launched less than 9,000 satellites in total since the 1950s.

Bassa executed the numbers in the full-size Starlink constellation approved by the FCC, as well as on smaller satellite fleets planned by OneWeb and Amazon. He discovered that the amount of satellites visible in the night sky increases approximately in proportion to the total size of the constellations. So, if SpaceX recognizes the full scope of its ambitions for Starlink without discovering how to make satellites less bright, we can expect to see more than 100 points of light flying through the night sky at almost any given moment.

More recent simulations have found that, even with 25,000 satellites in low Earth orbit, the vast majority will be too weak to see with the naked eye, but a great deal of uncertainty remains.

"However, the appearance of the pristine night sky, particularly when viewed from dark sites, will be altered, because the new satellites could be significantly brighter than existing orbiting artificial objects," the International Astronomical Union said in a statement that announced on February 12. The results of the simulations.

SpaceX did not immediately answer a series of questions for this story.

With Starlink satellites already spoiling astronomical observations at this early stage, there has been a protest by astronomers and a SpaceX promise to work with scientists and remedy any of their concerns. An experimental "DarkSat" with a coating intended to make it less reflective was launched with a batch of Starlink satellites, but it is not clear if the approach can work.

The dark layer can make the satellite absorb more heat from the sun and ultimately malfunction. When Bassa tried to observe the DarkSat in January, he didn't seem to be much weaker than his uncoated Starlink brothers. Other astrophotographers, including Thierry Legault, recorded similar observations in the following video. Bassa hopes to take another look soon to see what exactly is happening with the experimental satellite, but he told me that the weather has not cooperated so far.

SpaceX has also been working on software that observatories can use to plan their astronomical observations in a way that avoids Starlink satellites.

"However, some observatories may not be equipped to use such a software program," says the International Astronomical Union in a frequent question on its website. "Also, when the number of satellites is too high, avoidance programs may not work as effectively as expected."

There are also other concerns.

Managing an unprecedented amount of orbital traffic is a high-risk game. A small amount of accidental collisions could create dozens of rubble that would then cause more collisions. In The worst case, known as Kessler Syndrome,
Cascade collisions make the orbit an inaccessible wasteland, cutting off access to space and our global telecommunications networks.

SpaceX and others have pledged to manage their satellite traffic responsibly and proactively, which includes going beyond what regulators require by desorbiting satellites that are no longer operational to burn safely in the atmosphere.

But Starlink did not take long to generate anxiety among other orbital operators. A Starlink satellite from the first batch launched in May got too close to a satellite from the European Space Agency in September, forcing ESA to make a "maneuver to avoid collisions" for the first time.

The constellations continue to grow

SpaceX has continued to launch new batches of highly reflective Starlink satellites without coating every few weeks, and its competitor OneWeb is also increasing its own satellite implementations. Despite protests by astronomers, who began publishing open letters and circulating requests, space companies have strong incentives to continue to rapidly increase the size of their satellite constellations in the meantime.

On March 29, 2018, the FCC gave SpaceX a green light to launch the first phase of Starlink, which includes 4,425 satellites. But that permission comes with the requirement that half of those satellites be launched and operational within six years. That means that SpaceX has to launch almost 2,000 more satellites in the next four years, or about 40 a month, assuming that each satellite it launches reaches its operational orbit and operates without incident.

This helps explain why SpaceX simply hasn't stopped its launches while discovering how to make its satellites less reflective. Presumably, there is also pressure to stay ahead of the competition, as rival OneWeb begins to launch its own broadband constellation and the Amazon Kuiper Project is waiting in the wings.

There could also be a boost to capitalize on the next 5G gold rush. While Starlink will sell retail Internet access to customers using its own proprietary receiver like other satellite ISPs, Musk has suggested that Starlink could also sell wholesale Internet access or "backhaul" to 5G network operators.

More recently, SpaceX's chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, suggested that the company might be looking to split its Starlink business. SpaceX already has a sister company, SpaceX Services, which has been operating Starlink ground stations, according to recent FCC documents.

"Right now, we are a private company, but Starlink is the right kind of business we can go ahead and make public," Shotwell told a group of private investors last week, according to Bloomberg.

Developing the buzz for an eventual IPO is another reason why the pace of Starlink releases probably does not decrease in the short term.

The court case

The tension between the rush to send thousands of satellites to orbit and the protest over their unforeseen consequences suggests that the problem should be resolved in court immediately.

A trio of Italian astronomers, led by Stefano Gallozzi of the Astronomical Observatory of Rome, recently wrote an academic article that suggests that another nation could sue the United States government in the International Court of Justice under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

The logic here is that the treaty says that each country is ultimately responsible for satellites launched by private entities based in its territory. Since SpaceX is an American company, the United States government is technically responsible to the rest of the world for what SpaceX does in space.


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However, suing the United States government in The Hague would require the United States to submit to the jurisdiction of the International Court. Space law experts think it is very unlikely.

"The chances of another state bringing the United States to the International Court of Justice are scarce, let alone demand under the Outer Space Treaty," says Michael Listner, a lawyer specializing in law and space policy.

While it may be almost impossible to bring the issue before an international tribunal, Joanne Gabrynowicz, editor-in-chief emeritus of the Journal of Space Law, says that the Outer Space Treaty remains relevant to Starlink and other constellations that affect the work of astronomers. .

"Article 9 of the Outer Space Treaty says that signatories should avoid harmful interference in the use of space by other signatories, so the question is how much light pollution constitutes harmful interference," he told me.

There is a precedent in the law of the United States to control commercial companies that seek to change our vision of space from the ground. A section of the US code. UU. It specifically prohibits "annoying space advertising," so it probably wouldn't be advisable for SpaceX to start using images of its satellite trains moving across the sky in any Starlink marketing material.

A new operating environment.

There are other rumors in the legal community about Starlink and its impact on how we receive starlight on Earth.

Ramon Ryan, a law student and incoming editor-in-chief of the Vanderbilt Journal of Entertainment and Tech Law, has investigated the new issue and believes that the FCC may have violated a federal environmental law by giving SpaceX the OK to launch a number without satellite precedents Present the argument in an extensive article, a draft that you shared with me, to be published in the magazine this summer.

The FCC has operated under the assumption for years that commercial satellites have no adverse environmental impacts and, therefore, are categorically excluded from the detailed environmental reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act.

Interestingly, NASA does not exclude its releases from the environmental review, although it does simplify the process by using a single review to cover similar routine releases. Ryan suggests that the FCC may be wise to adopt NASA's approach and consider the environmental impact of satellite constellations.


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"A court is likely to determine that the FCC is required to review commercial satellite projects under (the National Environmental Policy Act) as these projects are likely to have direct, indirect and cumulative effects on the environment," Ryan writes.

"We strongly reject this theory," an FCC spokesperson told me. "The FCC's action in unanimously approving the deployment of SpaceX was completely legal. The order provides ample legal justification based on the public record, which incidentally did not include any comments along the lines of these subsequent criticisms."

However, Ryan suggests that the FCC could complete an environmental assessment of commonly used satellite components. Satellite operators could design their constellations to approve this repetitive evaluation and thus avoid a potentially long review of their specific project.

"In doing so, the FCC would create standards in the commercial satellite industry that promote economic growth and stability, while fulfilling the mandate of Congress for the federal government to proactively consider the environmental impacts of its actions," he concludes. Ryan.

As it stands now, no such legal challenges have been presented to Starlink or other competing satellite constellations.

SpaceX has followed the letter of the law to take off Starlink, according to the FCC, Listner and other legal experts. The company has also been working with groups of astronomers to address their concerns despite not having a legal obligation to do so.

Some astronomers even argue that Starlink's promise of broadband Internet access to almost anywhere can be worth the cost for science.

"We have the option of denying people the Internet … in the process by denying them educational, financial and other opportunities (or) making it easier for people to do terrestrial astronomy," writes astronomer Pamela Gay. "Yes, the sky will be full of satellites, but what is the greatest good?"

It is a debate that will probably continue for many months and years to come.



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