If you were to look up into the night sky, among the many stars you would likely see a Starlink satellite – or several of them.
With the potential for fast, reliable and globally available satellite internet on the horizon, SpaceX has been increasing it’s Starlink array over the past year, with over 500 currently in orbit.
While the benefits of such a satellite array have been made obvious, some astronomers aren’t pleased with the side effects.
Unlike most satellites – which orbit at a distance of several thousand kilometres – the Starlink array is currently orbiting at an altitude of 550 kilometres.
The result is hundreds of bright blips, which interrupt photography or observation of the sky due to their size and luminance.
James Lowenthal, an astronomer with Smith College, told The New York Times that such a high number of low orbiting satellites “potentially threatens the science of astronomy itself”.
Images of the NEOWISE comet by astrophotographer Daniel Lopez also highlighted the issue, with dozens of light trails interrupting his long exposure.
“…trying to track the comet with a 200 mm and Canon España’s Canon Ra, to add the images and get more detail, there was a Starlink satellite pass right in front of it… shame to see all those bright spots pass, in total almost 20 images of the comet show traces.” Image and text from Daniel’s FaceBook page You can see more of Daniel’s amazing photography on his website, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.
And the number of satellites is only due to increase, going from several hundred to several thousand as the Starlink array continues to expand.
Despite this, SpaceX claims that the problem can be resolved, noting that the satellites haven’t finished ascending into their final orbiting altitude – which will slowly happen over the next few months and likely dim their visibility.
SpaceX is also beginning to launch satellites VisorSat – a sunshade made to minimise light to reflective parts of the satellite – although this has yet to be integrated on a large scale.
While the proposed solutions may yield a positive result, only the future will tell what effects this will have on astronomy.