SpaceX launched 60 internet satellites in space on Monday.
The recent series – the second such rocket company Elon Musk sent into orbit – is part of SpaceX's plan to cover Earth with high-speed satellite internet. The company launched its first batch of 60 satellites in May and hopes to complete a project, called Starlink, in 2027. Until then, the network could include up to 42,000 satellites.
But that plan has many scientists worried about the future of astronomy.
They fear that SpaceX's satellites are too bright and could form a "megaconstellation" that blows stars. If that happened, astronomers would not be able to infiltrate the universe from Earth.
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"If there are a lot of light moving objects in the sky, it will greatly complicate our work," astronomer James Lautenthal told The New York Times. "That potentially endangers the science of astronomy itself."
Even more, 42,000 satellites would be more than eight times the total number of satellites in orbit today, according to estimates by the European Space Agency. Adding so much material to Earth's orbit would increase the risk of a catastrophic series of collisions turning the region into a minefield.
At worst, a spiral disaster without space may disrupt our ability to leave Earth.
"Looks like the whole sky is crawling with the stars"
When SpaceX launched its first set of Starlink satellites, many astronomers were upset by how bright the new objects were. In the days since launch, people around the world have spotted the train of satellites, bright as stars.
"I felt like life as an astronomer and lover of the night sky would never be the same," Lowenthal said.
SpaceX did not respond to Business Insider request comment on this or other points in this story in time for publication.
Most of the company's Starlink satellites have since moved to higher orbit, but some are still visible in rural areas with dark night skies, according to Times.
If SpaceX launches thousands more satellites, "it will look like the whole sky is crawling with the stars," Lautenthal said.
An Earth telescope designed to look for distant, dark objects would easily pick up these fake stars.
The upcoming LSST telescope in Chile is one such telescope. Scheduled for completion in 2022, it will study the mysterious forces of dark matter and dark energy. The LSST will also show objects that change or move across the sky, including potentially dangerous asteroids that fly dangerously close to Earth.
Researchers worry that Starling satellites could interfere with that data. A satellite can generate a great deal of light through long-range images of the telescope in the sky, producing false signals and blocking astronomers' view of the objects they want to study.
These strips will get worse in the summer, according to the magazine's editorial Nature, because satellites would be visible longer periods of time. That seasonal imbalance would reduce LSST data in long-term studies.
Researchers are exploring their ability to maneuver the LSST around new satellites. But simulations based on previous SpaceX plans to launch 12,000 satellites (30,000 less than current plan calls) suggest that satellites will be inevitable 20% of the time, The Times reported.
Satellites would be most visible around dusk and dawn – when telescopes can best track asteroids flying too close to Earth.
"We are repeating the patterns now just to see what is visible at all times – and it is really, really scary," Patrick Sitzer, an astronomer who runs such simulations, told. Times.
SpaceX plan may make astronomy "impossible"
SpaceX has said it plans to paint its satellites black on the sides facing Earth, making them less reflective. (It didn't seem to do so for the recently launched series.) But even if he painted, telescopes like the LSST would still be able to detect the light of the satellites, Tyson said.
What's more, black would do nothing to cover radio waves.
Satellite communications use wavelengths similar to those radio telescopes on the ground to study objects in space. For now, radio interference from satellites is manageable for most telescopes. But that is likely to change if the number of satellites in orbit increases from the current total of 2000 to just over 50,000.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory spoke with SpaceX about switching satellite communications to different radiofrequencies, Nature reported
The American Astronomical Society (AAS) also met with SpaceX to discuss the impact of its satellites, according to Times. Lowenthal is one of the experts on that committee.
"So far they have been quite open and generous with their data," he said. "But they did not make any promises."
Other companies, including Amazon, Telesat and OneWeb, are also working on plans to launch their own satellite constellations, though none are as expansive as SpaceX's.
"There is a point where it is impossible to do current astronomy," astronomer Athonathan McDowell told Times. "I'm not saying StarLink is that point. But if you just don't care about it and go 10 more years with ever more mega-constellations, you'll eventually get to the point where you can't do astronomy anymore. ”
SPACE – FUN DISASTER
Over 100 million pieces of garbage surround the Earth, from abandoned satellites, collapsed spacecraft and other space missions. Every piece of debris, however small, travels fast enough to cause catastrophic damage to vital equipment. One hit could be deadly for astronauts on the spacecraft.
The more things we put into orbit, the greater the risk of collisions.
Any potential collision would fragment the satellites or other objects orbiting smaller pieces, making the collisions more likely. If that situation were out of control, it could cause a catastrophic chain of accidents known as the Kessler event.
Theoretically, one collision could create and spread pieces of garbage that then cause another collision, which in turn prohibits more debris and leads to a chain of falls. Finally, the earth would fly around the debris field so impassable that any spacecraft passing through could not avoid catastrophic collisions.
Donald J. Kessler, formerly of NASA's Johannes Space Center, first set this worst-case scenario in a 1978 study. In it, he calculated that it could take hundreds of years for such debris to clear enough to make the space flight safe again.
However, most astronomers agree that the event in Kessler is unlikely today.
STARLINK SATELLITE WORKERS
Launching its first series of Starlink satellites, SpaceX said it plans to "de-energize" two satellites using ion motors to transport them to Earth's atmosphere, where they will burn. This will demonstrate how the company can remove old or broken satellites from orbit, thereby reducing the risk of collisions.
These satellites have not yet been de-energized since October 27, according to surprises by McDowell.
SpaceX and Amazon also design their own satellites to avoid collisions through automatic or maneuverable maneuvers. But even so, Amazon's recent reporting to CCC suggested that if 5% of its satellites fail (or their avoidance systems do so), the risk of a large constellation would be about 6%.
Such a rate is "well above what Amazon saw as expected or acceptable," the company wrote in a letter to CCC.
For its part, SpaceX recorded a 5 percent failure rate with its first series of 60 Starlink satellites: Three stopped working after deployment. (Because that group of satellites was experimental, Elon Musk told reporters before the launch that failures were possible.)
These three volatile satellites will circumnavigate the planet until Earth's gravity pulls them toward Earth. As they enter the atmosphere, they will burn, probably within a year. But until then, they will remain in orbit without a way to communicate with the field operators.
"The failure rate of 5% is actually better than most historical constellations, especially for this size," Brian Weiden, program director at the Space Sustainability Organization, Secure World Foundation, told Forbes. "But it's definitely not good enough for a very large constellation of hundreds or thousands of satellites. The target should be a failure rate of at least 1% or lower, and even that will lead to dozens of dead satellites."
Even non-dead SpaceX satellites have already caused collision problems: On September 2, the European Space Agency (ESA) revealed that it must move its Aeolus satellite to avoid a possible collision with the SpaceX Starlink satellite.
SpaceX plans to start providing Starlink Internet services in the US and Canada after six launches, sometime in 2020. It plans to have "near global coverage" in 2021.
But given the risks of upgrading the telescope and space unhealthy, some astronomers think the pace is too fast.
"I'd rather licensing authorities request a slower phase so we can get 500-hour experience[ellite] a constellation before leaving for 5,000 hours and so on, "McDowell said on Twitter.
– This story was first published by BusinessInsider.com.au