'Wild West' In Space: Astronomers Concerned New, Brighter Satellites Could Hinder Observations From Earth

By Mark Brodie
Published: Monday, August 31, 2020 - 12:57pm

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Lowell Observatory
Lowell Observatory
Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff.

MARK BRODIE: Some astronomers are worried that in the-not-too distant future, when you look up at the night sky, in addition to seeing stars and planets and maybe the occasional comet, you may also see satellites. SpaceX has already launched hundreds. But the New York Times reported the FCC recently approved Amazon's plan to send up what it's calling its Project Kuiper Constellation. It aims to extend high-speed Internet access to underserved areas and would consist of more than 3,200 satellites. And other companies are reportedly considering similar plans. With me to talk more about this is astronomer Jeffrey Hall, director of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. He's also a member of the American Astronomical Society's Committee on Light Pollution and Space Debris. And Jeffrey, how are these satellites affecting observations of space from Earth?

JEFFREY HALL: Right. So far, the impact is not too huge because the first company to really start launching the satellites — SpaceX — hasn't launched that many of them. But they are fairly bright satellites, and there is potential in the longer run, if multiple operators get into the game, instead of some thousands of satellites, we could have more than 100,000 up there, which would deeply impact ground-based astronomy.

BRODIE: So is it mostly the quantity of new satellites that would be going up there? Because obviously there are satellites up in space already, right?

HALL: There are. There's many thousands of satellites up there. Most of them are extremely faint. The thing about these new comm. satellites is they're very bright. And there's the potential for a whole lot of them. You know, right now there's only about 200 satellites up there — I think it is, approximately — that you can see without optical aid, just with your unaided eye. And so this would dramatically increase the number of bright satellites in the sky.

BRODIE: So is the concern then that folks might mistake astronomers for other objects in the sky or that it just makes it harder for people to see stars, planets and other kinds of things that you might be able to see now?

HALL: Well, there's two aspects to that. The Starlink — the SpaceX satellites — once they are deployed to their operational altitude, will not be visible to the unaided eye. So you just go out and look at the sky, you won't see them. You will see them right after launch and in their parking orbits. But to sensitive astronomical detectors, they are incredibly bright and impossible to remove the trails that trail across images when they fly through a field of view.

BRODIE: So that means a photo or an observation that somebody makes will include the tail or maybe even the potential, the satellite itself in addition to everything else that's up there?

HALL: Right, right. It's the streak of the bright satellite passing through the image or even as we've seen in some cases, multiple satellites. And we've actually concluded, you know, if this was just SpaceX and they were just going to do what they're planning to do this year, which is launch about 1,500 satellites up to an altitude of about 550 kilometers, that wouldn't be too bad. But it's still the longer term prospect of maybe more than 100,000 of these that is what's leading to some concern.

BRODIE: Well, is there sort of a precedent that you're worried about now that it seems like Amazon is getting into the game and there are rumors that other companies might be doing this as well, that it might become kind of like a Wild West up there?

HALL: Well, and that's, that's actually a really good way to put it, because it is a Wild West. There's basically no regulation. There's nothing to stop an operator from launching satellites wherever they want. So in principle, an operator that simply didn't care could launch a constellation of very bright, visible-to-the-eye satellites. You could have thousands of new, permanently moving stars in the sky effectively. Now to their credit, SpaceX has been very proactive and we've been working closely with them to find ways to darken the satellites and lower their impact. Amazon has reached out as well. And so, so far, there's been very good back and forth going.

BRODIE: I'm curious about the kind of communication that's taken place between the scientific community, the commercial entities, and maybe even the entities like the FCC or others in the federal government to try to figure out a way that maybe this could work for everybody, at least to some degree.

HALL: Exactly. And that's what we're trying to do. You know, right at the end of June, early July, I and one of the astronomers down in Tucson cohosted a virtual conference. We call it SATCON1 — Satellite Constellations 1. It was supported by the National Science Foundation. And, and our charge was to bring together astronomers and satellite operators and get a first report out on the impacts of these satellites and then things we might do to mitigate those impacts. It's been a very collegial and cordial collaboration so far.

BRODIE: What have you seen so far and maybe what kinds of problems have you encountered already with the existing mega-constellation programs that have already been launched?

HALL: So far it's been fairly minor because there aren't that many of them up there yet. You know, I can tell you we, for instance, we had one of our astronomers here at Lowell was on an observing run down in Chile and indeed had a long exposure get photobombed by three bright Starlink satellites. So it's starting to happen. The, the impacts right now are at a pretty low level. But as you know, the time to work towards a solution is before the train has left the station.

BRODIE: Right. So in terms of the actual impact, I mean, could this potentially hinder astronomers finding new things or being able to detect new objects or learn about more objects in the sky? I mean, I would imagine that there's sort of an aesthetic feature here as well. But from a scientific point of view, does this hinder things?

HALL: Oh, yeah. It could preclude a number of types of programs. If you had, say, over 100; 150,000 satellites up there, there would be various parts of the sky that would essentially never be free of satellite trails. And what really gets impacted are some of the, the largest current facilities and facilities under construction, like the Vera Rubin Observatory down in Chile, which has a really wide field of view and surveys the entire sky. But because of that large field of view, its programs could be very severely impacted. I think what we're seeing here is something that naturally happens when you have a very rapidly changing circumstance, right? So space is becoming accessible to private companies as opposed to just major federal efforts, say, coming out of NASA. And technology is allowing that to happen. And we're just seeing what inevitably happens when that kind of progress gets ahead of regulation and really thinking carefully about all of the side effects. And fortunately, so far it's been a really good conversation between the scientific community and the satellite industry. And that's good to see. It's good to see collaborative and civil discourse going between two very diverse industries, and we hope to keep it up.

BRODIE: All right. That is Jeffrey Hall. He's director of Lowell Observatory up in Flagstaff. Jeffrey, thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

HALL: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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