Credit: Twitter posting/Astro Noel

It is a credo expressed within the astronomy community: “Wishing you clear skies.”

Same goes for those on the countdown clock ready to launch a rocket…and time is ticking away as SpaceX is set to hurl into Earth orbit another group of their Starlink satellites.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has given SpaceX the thumbs up to loft and operate up to 12,000 Starlink satellites in the coming years.

Today’s liftoff of 60 Starlink spacecraft brings the number of the broadband Internet network satellites to 180.

An image of the NGC 5353/4 galaxy group made with a telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, USA on the night of Saturday 25 May 2019. The diagonal lines running across the image are trails of reflected light left by more than 25 of the 60 recently launched Starlink satellites as they passed through the telescope’s field of view. Although this image serves as an illustration of the impact of reflections from satellite constellations, please note that the density of these satellites is significantly higher in the days after launch (as seen here) and also that the satellites will diminish in brightness as they reach their final orbital altitude.
Credit: Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory

However, the Starlink “train” of Earth-circling spacecraft has upset astronomers and their viewing of the Universe at large. SpaceX has reacted to the complaints and reportedly one Starlink onboard today’s launch features a less-reflective coating in a test to minimize its brightness.

Keeping space clean

“Starlink is on the leading edge of on-orbit debris mitigation, meeting or exceeding all regulatory and industry standards,” explains the Starlink website.

“At end of life, the satellites will utilize their on-board propulsion system to deorbit over the course of a few months. In the unlikely event the propulsion system becomes inoperable, the satellites will burn up in Earth’s atmosphere within 1-5 years, significantly less than the hundreds or thousands of years required at higher altitudes,” the website states.

That said, Starlink is a forerunner of things to come as other companies are readying their own satellite constellations, such as Amazon. They are working on Project Kuiper, placing over 3,000 satellites into orbit to provide a high-speed global internet service.

Credit: SpaceX/Starlink

Starlink stink

Meanwhile, researchers attending this week’s 235th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Honolulu, Hawaii are taking up the issue, holding a panel discussion “Astronomy Confronts Satellite Constellations.” The panel will take a hard look at mega-constellations of satellites and optical astronomy as well as their impact on radio astronomy.

Starlink satellites.
Credit: SpaceX

Low Earth orbiting constellations are increasingly attractive commercially due to lower launch costs and more advanced technology, observes Peter Ward, author of the new book The Consequential Frontier – Challenging the Privatization of Space (Melville House Publishing). “But once again we’re rushing into new territory with no regard for the consequences further down the line,” he told Inside Outer Space.

“The problem with this situation and many others in space is there won’t ever be robust enough regulation until it’s too late. And regulations are not likely to be made tougher any time soon as country’s look to attract commercial space companies to launch and operate from their territory,” Ward says. “The principle of maintaining a clutter-free, collision-free lower Earth orbit is sadly insignificant if there are dollars to be made.”

Space traffic management

Adding his voice to these issues is George Nield. He served as the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) from 2008-2018.

Nield told Inside Outer Space that he is very concerned about the apparent lack of interest in space debris, space situational awareness, and space traffic management by the U.S. government.

“Those topics had already reached the ‘crisis’ stage; the launch of Starlink and similar systems greatly magnifies the urgent need to respond,” Nield says.

U.S. President Trump signs Space Directive-3.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Inaction on action

In 2018, the National Space Council took up the issue of space traffic management, Nield points out, and their work led to the issuance of Space Policy Directive-3.

“A key component of that policy was the recommendation that the Department of Commerce (DOC) take responsibility for implementing a Civil Space Traffic Management framework. Unfortunately, here we are, more than 18 months later, and Congress has not yet acted on that recommendation,” Nield explains.

Specifically, DOC has not been provided with the authority, immunity, and resources necessary for them to move forward, Nield adds, nor has any other organization, such as the FAA or Department of Transportation (DOT).

Moving forward

“My understanding is that some in Congress believe that the FAA (or DOT) should be given the new responsibilities rather than Commerce,” Nield says. “One would hope that a compromise could be reached so that we can start moving forward; however, that does not appear to be happening.”

Given the importance of space to America’s national security, technological leadership, and international competitiveness, Nield says “it is vital that the United States act now to ensure the safety of space operations and preservation of the space environment. Failure to take action on these issues will likely result in the U.S. losing an opportunity for international leadership in the space arena, since other nations are already stepping forward to define the problems and propose solutions,” he concludes.


For more information on this topic, go to:

‘This Is Not Cool!’ – Astronomers Despair As SpaceX Starlink Train Ruins Observation of Nearby Galaxies by Jonathan O’Callaghan in Forbes.

Also, “This Is How Elon Musk Can Fix The Damage His Starlink Satellites Are Causing To Astronomy” by Ethan Siegel in Forbes.

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