Astronomers Worried As ‘Satellite Constellations’ Fill Night Sky

A new kind of high-speed internet is coming to Tuba City on the Navajo Nation, teleported from space by the so-called “satellite constellations”. This technology can provide much needed Internet access in rural areas. But that comes with a dilemma. Melissa Sevigny of KNAU reports that the new satellites are so bright and so numerous that astronomers are worried about the future of the night sky.

A few years ago, a public educator named Victoria Girgis was showing a group of visitors on a tour of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. They were looking at a group of galaxies through a telescope. “We were all looking at the sky of course,” recalls Girgis, “because it was outside, and that’s what you do an observatory, you admire the night sky.”

Then she noticed something: “Dots were moving in the sky, and they were all following each other in a line.”

Girgis rushed to the telescope and took a photo, which would go viral on the internet. It captured the very first launch of sixty Starlink satellites. “You couldn’t see any of the galaxies anymore, you could just see those bright diagonal lines crossing the screen,” she says.

T4: To many astronomers, this photo was a red flag that “satellite constellations” could be a problem. Jeff Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory, said: “Everyone was taken aback by the brightness of the satellites. Including SpaceX, they were also a little surprised by their brightness.”

Hall and other astronomers have worked with the company SpaceX to try to find solutions. Once the satellites reach their final orbit, they’re right on the edge of human vision, “but for a major research telescope that’s blindingly bright, even a small research telescope,” Hall says.

And there are so many. One hundred thousand new satellites are collectively planned by companies like SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb. (All three companies either declined or did not respond to KNAU’s interview requests.) Their intention is to bring the Internet to underserved rural areas like the Navajo Nation; a goal that has taken on a new urgency since the pandemic. Matt Fowler, a spokesperson for Coconino County, said: “We have so many rural citizens … spread out in so many different areas, there are no other opportunities. You can’t push microwaves in some of these areas, you can’t use fiber or copper or any other infrastructure, so really [Starlink] is the only option. “

More than half of Navajo Nation communities lack broadband access, a blatant injustice and health risk during a pandemic when students couldn’t log into online classes and people couldn’t could not apply for jobs from home. But in Tuba City, forty-five households now have the Internet thanks to a pilot program with Starlink. The houses were chosen because the teachers, students and first responders live there.

“The very first night we actually put the equipment on the ground in the homes,” Fowler recalls, “we got a lot of phone calls from people who were very emotional and crying.”

That’s the dilemma: How do you provide the internet that rural areas desperately need while protecting the night sky? SpaceX is trying to darken its satellites, and Amazon will put its constellation in low orbit to keep it out of the sun for most of the night. These are voluntary actions of companies, not mandated. John Barentine of the International Dark Sky Association says there aren’t many rules to regulate space. “The heart of this policy dates back to a time when the concern was who was going to go to the moon first, was it the United States or the Soviets?” he said, referring to the Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967, when only a few dozen satellites were successfully launched into orbit.

The growing number of satellites, says Barentine, “puts pressure on this need to more clearly define roles and responsibilities in managing this sense of orbital space as this common good that belongs to all of us.”

One research activity that may be affected by satellite constellations is the search for asteroids that pose a threat to Earth. But Barentine also sees philosophical reasons for protecting the night sky: “There is a desire, there is a sense of connection to the cosmos that is deeply rooted in us, whether we consciously reflect on it or not.”

Astronomers and representatives of satellite companies are meeting virtually this week to discuss ways to protect the skies in this new era they call “the industrialization of space”.

About Hannah Schaeffer

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