SpaceX satellites pose new headache for astronomers

2019-05-29 22:00
In this screengrab taken from a video shot by Marco Langbroek, a group of SpaceX Starlink satellites pass over Leiden, Netherlands. (AFP)

In this screengrab taken from a video shot by Marco Langbroek, a group of SpaceX Starlink satellites pass over Leiden, Netherlands. (AFP)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

It looked like a scene from a sci-fi blockbuster: An astronomer in the Netherlands captured footage of a train of brightly-lit SpaceX satellites ascending through the night sky this weekend, stunning space enthusiasts across the globe.

But the sight has also provoked an outcry among astronomers who say the constellation, which so far consists of 60 broadband-beaming satellites but could one day grow to as many as 12 000, may threaten our view of the cosmos and deal a blow to scientific discovery.

The launch was tracked around the world and it soon became clear that the satellites were visible to the naked eye: A new headache for researchers who already have to find workarounds to deal with objects cluttering their images of deep space.

"People were making extrapolations that if many of the satellites in these new mega-constellations had that kind of steady brightness, then in 20 years or less, for a good part the night anywhere in the world, the human eye would see more satellites than stars," Bill Keel, an astronomer at the University of Alabama, told AFP.

The satellites' brightness has since diminished as their orientation has stabilized and they have continued their ascent to their final orbit at an altitude of 550km.

But that has not entirely allayed the concerns of scientists, who are worried about what happens next.

Elon Musk's SpaceX is just one of a several companies looking to enter the fledgling space internet sector.

To put that into context, there are currently 2 100 active satellites orbiting our planet, according to the Satellite Industry Association.

If another 12 000 are added by SpaceX alone, "it will be hundreds above the horizon at any given time", Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told AFP, adding that the problem would be exacerbated at certain times of the year and certain points in the night.

"So, it'll certainly be dramatic in the night sky if you're far away from the city and you have a nice, dark area; and it'll definitely cause problems for some kinds of professional astronomical observation."

Musk's puzzling response

The mercurial Musk responded to the debate on Twitter with contradictory messages, pledging to look into ways to reduce the satellites' reflectivity but also saying they would have "0% impact on advancements in astronomy" and that telescopes should be moved into space anyway.

He also argued the work of giving "billions of economically disadvantaged people" high-speed internet access through his network "is the greater good".

Keel said he was happy that Musk had offered to look at ways to reduce the reflectivity of future satellites, but questioned why the issue had not been addressed before.

If optical astronomers are concerned, then their radio astronomy colleagues, who rely on the electromagnetic waves emitted by celestial objects to examine phenomena such as the first image of the black hole discovered last month, are "in near despair", he added.

Satellite operators are notorious for not doing enough to shield their "side emissions", which can interfere with the observation bands that radio astronomers are looking out for.

"There's every reason to join our radio astronomy colleagues in calling for a 'before' response," said Keel.

"It's not just safeguarding our professional interests but, as far as possible, protecting the night sky for humanity."

KEEP UPDATED on the latest news by subscribing to our FREE newsletter.

- FOLLOW News24 on Twitter

Read more on:    spacex
NEXT ON NEWS24X

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

Inside News24

 
Traffic Alerts

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Jobs in Western Cape region

Key Accounts - IT

Bellville
Southern Shore Recruitment
R15 000.00 - R25 000.00 Per Month

Sales Representative- Knysna

George - Knysna
George Employment Consultants
R15 000.00 Per Month Per Month

Audit Senior / Bookkeeper to Trial Balance

Cape Town Southern Suburbs
Placement Point (Pty) Ltd
R15 000.00 - R21 000.00 Per Month

Property [change area]

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.