from the blinded-by-the-light dept
We recently noted how the Space X launch of low orbit broadband satellites is not only creating light pollution for astronomers and scientists, but captured U.S. regulators, eager to try and justify rampant deregulation, haven’t been willing to do anything about it. While Space X’s Starlink platform will create some much needed broadband competition for rural users, the usual capacity constraints of satellite broadband mean it won’t be a major disruption to incumbent broadband providers. Experts say it will be painfully disruptive to scientific study and research, however:
While Space X says it’s taking steps to minimize the glare and “photo bombing” capabilities of these satellites (such as anti-reflective coating on the most problematic parts of the satellites), a new study suggests that won’t be so easy. The joint study from both the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) found that while Space X light pollution can be minimized somewhat, it won’t be possible to eliminate:
“Changes are required at both ends: constellation operators and observatories. SpaceX has shown that operators can reduce reflected sunlight through satellite body orientation, Sun shielding, and surface darkening. A joint effort to obtain higher-accuracy public data on predicted locations of individual satellites (or ephemerides) could enable some pointing avoidance and mid-exposure shuttering during satellite passage. Observatories will need to adopt more dynamic scheduling and observation management as the number of constellation satellites increases, though even these measures will be ineffective for many science programs.”
Granted, in March, Space X boss Elon Musk predicted there would be no impact whatsoever from his Starlink project:
“I am confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries. Zero. That’s my prediction. We’ll take corrective action if it’s above zero.”
The report, which was first spotted by Ars Technica, notes that enough data has been collected to clearly indicate the impact is well above zero. Worse, they note that companies have only just started launching low-orbit satellite constellations. OneWeb and Space X have only just begun their efforts, and Amazon is expected to join the fray in a major way. Collectively, these launches will create some significant problems for scientists around the planet, the report concludes:
“If the 100,000 or more LEOsats proposed by many companies and many governments are deployed, no combination of mitigations can fully avoid the impacts of the satellite trails on the science programs of current and planned ground-based optical-NIR [near-infrared] astronomy facilities. Astronomers are just beginning to understand the full range of impacts on the discipline. Astrophotography, amateur astronomy, and the human experience of the stars and the Milky Way are already affected.”
While Space X’s lower altitude satellite are problematic, higher altitude satellites being eyed by the likes of Amazon are notably worse, the experts found. In a press release the groups detailed several ways of minimizing the impact of low-orbit satellite constellations (including launching less of them). But that’s going to require a lot of collaboration between researchers and industry. Collaboration that would be easier if we had U.S. regulators actually interested in helping coordinate that collaboration.
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