Astronomers have commended SpaceX’s response to complaints about the visibility of the Elon Musk-owned company’s Starlink constellation. Alarmed astronomers have complained for months the observational interference caused by the growing constellation of internet-beaming satellites. The SpaceX response includes an innovative new strategy for reducing the amount of light Starlink satellites reflect back to Earth.
However, Starlink is only the first of so-called megaconstellations already in development.
We all knew [the satellites] were coming, but we never imagined they were going to be so bright
These programmes aspire to eventually encompass tens of thousands of satellites in low-earth orbit.
SpaceX is the first company to have a fleet of nearly 500 in orbit, and that vanguard has alerted optical astronomers they have a new problem to tackle – a worrying increase in satellites reflecting streaks of light at astronomical observatories.
Professor James Lowenthal, an astronomer at Smith College in Massachusetts, voiced his concerns during a plenary talk at the 236th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS).
He said on June 2: “We all knew [the satellites] were coming, but we never imagined they were going to be so bright.
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“For one thing, we didn’t know how big the satellites were; that was not public information.”
He added: “And we didn’t know what elevation they were going to be at.
“The combination has made them much, much brighter than we anticipated — that was the big surprise.”
The problem has been particularly noticeable soon after each Starlink launch, before the satellites reach their final orbital altitude of about 340 miles (550km), since they can be seen by the unaided eye during this time.
Operational satellites also continue to interfere with sensitive observatories.
And despite the international outcry by astronomers, these satellites will remain in orbit for a long time.
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Professor Lowenthal revealed independent estimates value the Starlink program at about £7.8billion ($ 10billion) – a similar financial scale to NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
But he and the other members of the AAS working group have been speaking with SpaceX on a regular basis.
Those conversations have already led to SpaceX developing three experiments for the Starlink fleet this year.
The astronomer added: “The focus has been on how SpaceX can dim the satellites and how astronomers can dodge them.
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“Stopping the launches is not on the table. They already have permission.
“They don’t need to ask us for any more permission, they’ve already gotten it.”
“We’ve taken an experimental and iterative approach to reducing the brightness of the Starlink satellites,” SpaceX representatives wrote in a statement released in April.
“Orbital brightness is an extremely difficult problem to tackle analytically, so we’ve been hard at work on both ground and on-orbit testing.”
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SpaceX’s three proposed Starlink solutions:
The first experiment was a variant satellite called DarkSat that launched in January, with a few particularly reflective surfaces painted black.
Although the intervention made the satellite noticeably fainter it remained visible to the unaided eye.
The second experimental satellite launched in the most recent Starlink batch, on June 3.
This design uses visors to block sunlight from reaching the most reflective of the satellite’s surfaces once it reaches its operating altitude.
SpaceX has confirmed all Starlink satellites to launch will carry these visors by the end of the month.
The company’s statement suggests those two approaches aren’t necessarily the only changes SpaceX will try on the Starlink fleet moving forward.
The pioneering private space company wrote in a statement: “SpaceX is committed to making future satellite designs as dark as possible.”
Meanwhile, SpaceX is testing a different solution for managing reflectivity as satellites launch and climb, before the visors can make much of a difference.
Because this experiment operates on the computer code running the satellites, rather than on the satellite as an object, the approach can be applied to already-orbiting Starlink satellites as well as future launches.
This third technique relies on twisting the satellites during crucial points in their orbits so their solar panels lie flat and point directly from Earth to the Sun, almost eliminating the proportion of their surface visible from our planet.
SpaceX believes this should dramatically reduce the satellites’ brightness, although they will still sometimes be visible.