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Astronomers Worry How 'Swarms' Of SpaceX Satellites Will Impact Science, Nature

James Lowenthal is a Smith College astronomy professor.
Carol Lollis
Daily Hampshire Gazette / gazettenet.com
James Lowenthal is a Smith College astronomy professor.

SpaceX, the company owned by Elon Musk, launched a rocket last week carrying 60 satellites into space. It was the latest launch of satellites by SpaceX, which has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission to operate as many as 12,000 satellites to beam internet service. 

Last month, Musk announced his company was requesting permission to launch many thousands more satellites.

That has a number of astronomers — including James Lowenthal of Smith College — worried that the prospect of thousands of bright points of light moving across the sky will forever change our view of the night sky and of astronomy itself.

James Lowenthal, Smith College: When the satellites launch, they're orbiting at a little over 300 km altitude and they then move up to 550 km for their final orbit. But when they launch at that lower elevation, they appear to your eye as bright as some of the brightest stars in the sky. And those are easily visible from wherever you are — from New York City you would see these.

Now once they're at final orbit, they're significantly dimmer, but still visible to the naked eye. So you might not see them from downtown Northampton or Amherst, but right at the limit. And if you just got out in the countryside a little bit, then you would be able to see them naked-eye. And for sensitive astronomical detectors, they are terribly bright — bright enough that one passing across our field of view, our camera image would be saturated and ruined.

Kari Njiiri, NEPR: That's a big impact on scientific research.

We are not used to dealing with the numbers we're talking about here, many thousands of low-Earth orbit satellites. The total number of satellites in space now is around 10,000 artificial objects. Around 5,000 of those are operating satellites, the rest are debris, rocket boosters, defunct satellites. And we're talking about multiplying that number by many times just in a few short years.

I understand since this past spring, you and other astronomers have been discussing your concerns with representatives from SpaceX. What has been their response?

Their response, at first, was surprise that we were surprised. And I'm happy to say that they've been open to communication. We've had a series of monthly teleconferences with representatives from SpaceX, and they've been great about asking us for the information they need to assess: What's the goal? How bright could you tolerate? How many could you tolerate at that certain brightness?

Because this is new for us astronomers. We don't have those answers ready quite yet.

I'm hopeful that SpaceX, at least, will do what they've said they would, which is do the best they can to reduce the brightness of the satellites. And that would be an important step towards reducing the impact on astronomy. My fear is it won't be enough, and there will be many major problems in astronomy that go unaddressed, unanswered, just because we can't look past these swarms of satellites.

Space debris and radio interference they've been ongoing issues. But as I understand, there've been laws to mitigate that kind of interference, but not so with light pollution.

That's exactly right. You've just named the ...triple threat to astronomy. And space debris and radio interference, yes, [are] regulated by longstanding international treaties. Light pollution — not so at all. There's nothing to stop any satellite operator around the world from launching any number of satellites at any brightness.

What's the solution, if any, at this point?

I think we need to have broad conversation with all the stakeholders. There needs to be international collaboration among space operators, naturalists, because we don't know what the effect on nature is.

Most migratory birds migrate at night, many of them using the stars. What happens if the stars are all moving? We really don't know. What are some of the other effects on astronomy that we haven't even conceived of yet, we haven't even identified or recognized? Who owns the sky? Whose sky is it and who gets to decide? And how does that decision happen?

Right now, the way we're working, it's kind of a Wild West free-for-all. And the [Federal Communications Commission], which gives permission to launch, is not even thinking about the effects that we've been discussing here on light pollution, or the effect on astronomy, or the effect on the appearance of the night sky to all humans and all animals. And it's right now up to private companies to make that decision. And that seems to me not right.

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