Beginning of 2021, just after the Perseverance Rover landed on Mars, an alleged image of the martian night sky has gone viral. In this image, above the smooth metal of a Martian rover, the clearly defined Milky Way cuts from horizon to horizon, crossing a sky filled with so many stars that there is no darkness.
Millions of people were thrilled to see the unblemished night sky of another planet, without the light pollution of cities, without blinking planes, and without significant satellite presence.
The photo is not real; rather, it is a clever juxtaposition of NASA images and long exposure astrophotography. So why did it go viral?
The threatened night sky
Urban light pollution has profoundly changed our relationship with the night sky: 80 percent of North Americans cannot see the Milky Way from where they live today. Electricity is so cheap and plentiful that we use it to light up the sky for no other reason than laziness and poor planning.
But we are now faced with a new source of light pollution: the systems of tens of thousands of communication satellites. The construction of these so-called mega-stellations is already changing the night sky.
Read more: SpaceX’s Starlink satellites are about to ruin stargazing for everyone
Indeed, observations of professional astronomers have shown that many of the current satellites in the Starlink mega-constellation are visible to the naked eye in the sun.
Megaconstellations have the potential to significantly benefit society by increasing the connectivity of isolated communities, a significant challenge in many parts of Canada. At the same time, the negative effects of mega-constellations need to be understood by policymakers and properly regulated.
Canada has a duty to consult First Nations so that everyone can independently make a decision before allowing the development of a resource that Indigenous Canadians traditionally have access to cultural practices.
The damage done to science
Astronomical organizations around the world are concerned about the damage to science that will be caused by mega-stellations and other forms of light and radio pollution, and have responded with efforts such as “Dark and Silent Skies Report” and the “SATCON1 report. “
Astronomers go require more telescope time to achieve the same taxpayer-funded science goals, and will have to spend time and money studying the brightness of these satellites and developing new software for mitigation efforts.
Radio astronomers expect lose more radio spectrum to the communication noise of the mega-constellation, requiring additional investments in research and development.
At the request of Canadian Astronomical Society, we have produced a report which contains a list of recommendations on what Canada can do to address the many negative impacts of mega-constellations nationally and internationally.
A sky full of satellites
We performed a simulation with 65,000 satellites in their proposed orbits (this includes Star link, OneWeb, Kuiper and StarNet / GW). We have found that there will be over 1,500 sunlit satellites at any time all night, every night in the summer from Canada. Not all of them will be visible, as their brightness depends on the shape, reflective properties and orbit of each satellite. But there are currently no regulations that limit their brightness.
There are currently about 20,000 objects tracked in orbit, including active satellites, deceased satellites, rocket bodies and pieces of space debris. There is 10 to 100 times no more untracked space debris that is small but still dangerous: tiny debris from rocket launches, satellite deployments, fragmentations (explosions) and even tools dropped by astronauts.
These small objects seem harmless, but in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), they move at speeds in excess of seven kilometers per second, several times faster than a bullet, in randomly crossing orbits.
Read more: We need new treaties to deal with the growing problem of space debris
Companies are making substantial progress to place at least 65,000 satellites in LEO. The current leader SpaceX has more 1,600 Starlink satellites already in orbit, in a region inhabited by a worrying density of untracked debris.
When two satellites collide (such as first arrived in 2009), they produce a spray of rapidly moving debris. A destroyed satellite makes hundreds or even thousands of traceable space debris, each of which can destroy other satellites, producing even more space debris. Any major fragmentation event will impose limitations on the use of space, endanger the crewed LEO space accommodation, and could cause widespread disruption to the services we rely on every day.
Reentry of space debris
As the recent uncontrolled re-entry of the Long March 5B Rocket Thruster on the Indian Ocean in May 2021 and SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stage in the Pacific Northwest in March 2021, the returns are not without risks. Part of the Falcon 9 rocket from March 2021 even survived impact with the ground in a farmer’s field in Washington state.
the current rules dates from the space race era. There is an accountability framework, but the only time it has been tested is when a USSR satellite spread nuclear waste across the Northwest Territories in 1978.
There are also environmental impacts, both from the rocket launches and elimination of satellites. SpaceX plans 42,000 Starlink satellites to be replaced every five years. This means that on average six tons of satellites will be destroyed. everyday. This material will be deposited in the upper atmosphere during the re-entry. Although it is less than the 54 tons of meteorites hitting the Earth’s atmosphere every day, the composition is very different: the Starlink satellites are mainly made of aluminum by weight; meteoroids make up one percent.
We don’t know what could happen when several tons of aluminum are deposited in the upper atmosphere every day. SpaceX will conduct this experiment without any environmental oversight.
Due to the orientation of the orbits of the proposed satellites, a large portion of the Canadian population will be in some of the highest satellite densities, so we can expect to see a disproportionate share of deorbiting space debris.
Satellite regulation is the key
We must recognize that LEO is inextricably linked to our atmosphere, our oceans and our lands. We need satellite regulation now, before there is irreparable damage to our skies. We hope the Government of Canada will act these recommendations with an urgency that matches the frenetic speed of spatial development.
While several mega-constellation companies are already in dialogue with astronomers, the improvements they make to their satellites for the benefit of astronomy are entirely voluntary. We shouldn’t have to choose between the night sky and the global internet. With proper regulation of satellites in LEO, we can have both.