Several days after spacecraft engineering firm SpaceX, owned by technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, released 60 satellites in May as part of its plan to provide global satellite internet, some astronomers noticed something different.
When some of the satellites passed quickly through the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, telescopes trained in the night sky caught rays of sunlight, influencing their vision as a distant star. The concern of the specialists is that the large number of planned communications satellites shines with such intensity that they interfere with research that depends on the delicate visual observations of distant galaxies and nearby asteroids.
"It seemed to us that we were in the right direction and Starlink flew through it" on May 25, two days after the launch, said Jeffrey Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory in Bloomberg. For Hall, the unexpected occurrence of satellites shows that "this is a potential problem."
Although SpaceX is not the only one with an ambitious plan to offer high-speed satellite internet, Starlink's fleet projects around 12,000 ships. These satellites will fly lower than many of the traditional ships and will arrive with unprecedented numbers. Approximately 5000 satellites are now circling the Earth.
Musk's space research has been authorized to release 11,943 satellites for its Starlink fleet, making it a leader in nearly 13,000 ground-based satellites approved by the Federal Communications Commission, which coordinates the trajectories and the use of radio frequencies. Last week, Jeff Bezos, Chief Executive Officer of Amazon, presented 3236 satellites for transmission over low-Earth orbit.
Low Frequency Satellites
The oldest vessels are located 36,000 kilometers above the Earth – a height that allows them to look floating in one place. The reason for selecting a low orbit (180 to 1900 kilometers) is that communication satellites need shorter paths to reduce transmission time for user information.
The goal is to travel around the world, ending the orbit in just 90 minutes. These lower trajectories offer a lower latency time as the data bounce off between the ground and the spacecraft, which overcomes the lethargy of the signal that limits internet space schemas that already exist but which depend on the traditional communications satellites.
However, if the goal, as these companies claim, is continuous and widespread coverage, a large number of vessels are constantly rotating.
According to data from the US space agency, NASA, in its last issue there are 4,972 satellites that are active and deceased.
More satellites, less stars?
The concern, however, is that the amount of stars visible to the human eye is not much more than 1628, with the number of stars being recorded in the "scale of brightness of the fifth magnitude" that according to Yale University astronomer Robert Zin has been used by scientists . Under unusual and favorable conditions, such as exceptional view, complete darkness without light pollution and no moonlight, more celestial bodies can be seen.
Although plans for low-flying satellite fleets have existed for years, the fear of scientific observers is a new angle. There is a video with more than 1.3 million views where you can see a train from satellites crossing the sky.
The millionaire businessman's answers are different. On May 25, through his Twitter account, he replied to an astronomy researcher who says "satellites will be in the dark when the stars are visible."
Two days later, Musk wrote that "Starlink will not be seen by anyone unless he sees it very carefully and will have a 0% impact on progress in astronomy."
There are now 4900 satellites in orbit that people notice ~ 0% of the time. Starlink will not be seen by anyone unless you look very carefully and have a ~ 0% impact on progress in astronomy. Still, we have to move the telescopes into orbit. Atmospheric attenuation is terrible. pic.twitter.com/OuWYfNmw0D
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 27, 2019
In another response, the entrepreneur said that "helping the billions of economically disadvantaged people is the best." This means that Starlink will not have a significant effect on discoveries in astronomy.
Despite the answers, some specialists are studying the scale of the problem. He said Pat Sajtzer, a former chair of the Committee on Illumination, Interference, and Spill Waste in the American Astronomical Society, a professional astronomer in North America.
"Our concern is how bright they can be," said Seicer, explaining that satellites may be less bright when they move to higher orbits, and their visibility may vary depending on the seasons.
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