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This illustration of Starlink, a fleet or constellation of internet-providing satellites designed by SpaceX, shows roughly 4,400 satellites of the project’s first phase deployed in three different orbital “shells”. Photo: University College London

Elon Musk’s fleet of low-orbiting Starlink satellites dot space, leave astronomers upset

  • Astronomers worry about the growing number of communications spacecraft planned to circle the Earth
  • These could interfere with research that depends on delicate visual observations of distant galaxies and nearby asteroids

Two days after Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched 60 satellites in May as part of a mission to bring quick internet service to people worldwide, astronomers noticed something different.

As some of the satellites zipped past the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, telescopes trained on the night sky captured streaks of reflected sunlight that marred their view of a far-off star system.

Astronomers now worry that the vast number of communications spacecraft planned, including nearly 12,000 of Musk’s Starlink fleet, will shine so brightly that they will interfere with research that depends on delicate visual observations of distant galaxies and nearby asteroids. The new satellites will fly lower than many traditional craft, and will arrive in unprecedented numbers – all told, more than double the roughly 5,000 satellites that are circling Earth now.

“We just happened to be pointed in the right direction, and Starlink flew right through it” on May 25, two days after launch, said Jeffrey Hall, director of the Lowell Observatory. The unexpected appearance helped to signal that, as Hall put it, “this is potentially a problem”.

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Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp is authorised to launch 11,943 satellites for its Starlink fleet, making it by far the leader in a total of nearly 13,000 low-Earth orbit satellites currently approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which coordinates trajectories and radio-frequency use. In addition,’s Jeff Bezos on Thursday filed to place 3,236 internet-beaming satellites into low-Earth orbit.

The lower trajectories offer minimal lag time for data to bounce between the ground and the spacecraft, overcoming the signal lethargy that has limited internet-from-space schemes dependent on traditional communications satellites. Those older craft are parked some 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometres) above the Earth, an altitude that lets them appear to hover in one spot.

At low-Earth orbit – altitudes of just 112 to 1,200 miles – satellites need to race around the globe to stay aloft, completing orbits in as little as 90 minutes. As one moves toward the horizon it will pass signal duties off to the next satellite coming by.

Many satellites are needed if continuous, widespread coverage is the goal – thus, the constellations planned by Musk and others.
A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket is shown here a day before the scheduled launch of 60 Starlink satellites from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Photo: Agence France-Presse

There are currently 1,338 satellites in low-Earth orbit, according to a database compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists. Nasa, the US space agency, tallied 4,972 satellites in its most recent count of payloads that are active and defunct.

The number of stars visible to the unaided human eye is not much more than 1,628, which is how many are registered at the fifth magnitude of a brightness scale used by scientists, Robert Zinn, an astronomer at Yale University, said in an email. Abnormally favourable conditions (exceptional eyesight, total darkness with no light pollution, and no moonlight) could yield more.

Plans for low-flying satellite fleets have been around for years. The realisation that they might startle sky-watchers seems novel. A video of the Starlink satellites floating in a train across the sky has attracted more than 1.3 million views on the Vimeo video-sharing site. And Musk’s public statements have varied.

“Sats will be in darkness when stars are visible,” Musk tweeted May 25, replying to solar system researcher Alex Parker, who on Twitter said the sight of SpaceX satellites launched two days earlier “gives me pause” because “they’re bright and there are going to be a lot of them”.

A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket, with a payload of 60 satellites for SpaceX's Starlink broadband network, lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on May 23. Photo: AP

Two days later, Musk tweeted that “Starlink won’t be seen by anyone unless looking very carefully & will have ~0% impact on advancements in astronomy”.

He followed with a tweet saying, “We’ll make sure Starlink has no material effect on discoveries in astronomy”. Musk added that he had sent a note to the Starlink team about “albedo reduction”, or cutting the proportion of light reflected from the spacecraft.

Astronomers are studying the extent of the problem, said Pat Seitzer, former chair of the Committee on Light Pollution, Radio Interference, and Space Debris at the American Astronomical Society, which represents professional astronomers in North America.

The satellites may be less bright once moved into planned higher orbits, and their visibility may vary with the seasons: their altitude means they’ll stay out of the Earth’s shadow and remain in sunlight even after dusk for a longer period in the summer than the winter.

Satellites that will form part of SpaceX's Starlink constellation await release into orbit from a Falcon 9 rocket on May 24. Photo: TNS

“Our concern is just how bright they might be,” said Seitzer, an astronomer at the University of Michigan.

Astronomers who use radio telescopes that rely on the non-visible spectrum also may be affected. They will need to adjust to a sky full of low-orbiting satellites, said Harvey Liszt, spectrum manager with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory based in Charlottesville, Virginia. The orbiting spacecraft will communicate via radio, generating celestial background noise that astronomers need to take into account as they listen for faint signals from distant reaches of the universe.

“We will have to learn how to operate our electronics to detect weak cosmic signals in the presence of satellite signals at other frequencies that will be millions of times stronger,” Liszt said by email.

Trustees of the American Astronomical Society quickly passed a resolution expressing concern after Starlink burst upon their scene, and the century-old International Astronomical Union commented as well.

SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said he advised the Starlink team about cutting the proportion of light reflected from the company’s fleet of satellites. Photo: AP

“Reflections from the sun in the hours after sunset and before sunrise make them appear as slow-moving dots in the night sky,” the union said in a June 3 statement. Though hard to pick out with the naked eye, “they can be detrimental to the sensitive capabilities of large ground-based astronomical telescopes”.

SpaceX said it plans to raise the satellites to operate at an altitude of 342 miles, compared with their altitude after launch of 273 miles.

“The observability of the Starlink satellites is dramatically reduced as they raise orbit,” Eva Behrend, a SpaceX spokeswoman, said in an email. SpaceX will turn the satellites and that may change their appearance, Behrend said.

SpaceX has not disclosed the dimensions of the satellites, which it says weigh 500 pounds (227 kilograms) each. All 60 of the initial Starlink satellites were sent aloft in one mission, and fit into a rocket’s fairing, or cargo bay, which is 43 feet (13 metres) long and 17 feet (5 metres) in diameter.

We’ll make sure Starlink has no material effect on discoveries in astronomy
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX

Some traditional satellites tend to be larger. For instance, the high communications satellites that appear to hover over one spot can weigh 13,000 pounds or more. And the Union of Concerned Scientists database lists about 1,000 spacecraft that are heavier than Starlink satellites.

The proposals for fleets serving up broadband from space fit a terrestrial policy imperative: to expand high-speed internet service to people and places left poorly served by traditional communications providers.

It is not clear who can help if scientists determine the fleets of tomorrow will interfere with multimillion dollar telescopes that can detect objects millions of times dimmer than visible with the naked eye. The FCC ensures that satellite constellations do not cause radio interference and do not risk collisions, the agency said in 2017. Neil Grace, an FCC spokesman, declined to comment.

Nasa does not regulate orbits or the spacecraft that enter them, said J D Harrington, a spokesman for the US space agency. The Federal Aviation Administration regulates the safety of commercial launches and does not regulate satellites, said Greg Martin, a spokesman.

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The legal arena “is really the Wild West” and “international space law doesn’t really deal with this use of outer space at all”, John Barentine, public policy director for the International Dark-Sky Association, which works to protect night vistas from light pollution, said in an email.

Concern extends to the purely aesthetic level, as some contemplate the visual blight brought to heavens untouched for millennia, but now marked by the satellite age.

“Darkness and the inspiration that the natural night sky brings to humanity has resulted in great works of art, literature and music,” Barentine said. “The prospect of losing all that is the prospect of severing a key tie between humanity and the natural world.”