Concerning constellations – Tension between astronomy and Elon Musk’s Starlink

As some of the most prolific users of social media and the internet, young people in the UK have essentially limitless access to information and may not fully appreciate it as a privilege. However, many developing countries have an Internet uptake in the range of 0-9% of the population with data costing a significant proportion of the average wage. Elon Musk, global entrepreneur and real life Iron Man, hopes to provide a solution with his project ‘Starlink’.

Using SpaceX, another of Musk’s enterprises, he plans to launch as many as twelve thousand smallsat-class satellites to provide “the world’s most advanced broadband internet system”. This will be an enormous step towards the commercialisation of space with the project over tripling the total number of satellites currently orbiting our planet. By as early as 2021, the Starlink ‘constellation’ (the technical term for such a deployment of satellites) will provide internet access globally at speeds and latencies never before achieved with space-based internet. This is realised by using room in low Earth orbit to minimise the round-trip distance for each photon which represents a packet of data.

Speeds and latencies never before achieved with space based internet.

Unfortunately, the ‘constellation’ terminology is a little too apt for land-based astronomers. The launch of sixty new satellites at the start of the year has been met with outcry as streaks of light seared across the viewfinders of amateur and professional stargazers including researchers. The problem with placing so many satellites at such low altitude is that they are highly reflective and, as such, are visible to the sensitive equipment used by researchers. SpaceX has offered reassurance to the astronomy community by stating that the brightness will diminish when the latest launch reaches its target altitude and that a ‘DarkSat’ is being trialed which should be less visible. Nevertheless, there are fears that, with such a large constellation planned, Starlink is going to become a recurring feature for Earth-based observers.

With a green light from the Federal Communications Commission and the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations regulator of telecoms, it doesn’t seem at all likely that Musk will slow his launch plans especially as a swift implementation is required to maintain momentum in a rapidly developing sector. Only time will reveal the true impact of Starlink on the competing interests of global communication and ground-based observation and whether astronomers will soon be deprived a link to the stars.

Image credit: “Mauna Keas Observatories 1563b” by d.monyak via Creative Commons