Will SpaceX's Starlink satellites ruin stargazing?

earthsky.org
5 min read
fairly difficult
SpaceX's satellites will populate the night sky, affecting how we observe the stars. And this is just the beginning of private satellite mega-constellations.
By Samantha Lawler, University of Regina

I walk outside my rural Saskatchewan house before dawn and look up, expecting to have my breath taken away by the sheer number of stars overhead. I'm a professional astronomer, but I still appreciate unaided-eye stargazing as much as an eager child. This is the first place I've lived that's dark enough to easily see the Milky Way, and I'm stunned and awed every time I look up.

This time though, I curse softly. There's a bright satellite. And another following behind. And another. And another.

I used to be excited about seeing artificial satellites, but now I know what's coming. We're about to undergo a dramatic transition in our experience of satellites. No longer will you escape your city for a camping trip and see the stars unobstructed: you will have to look through a grid of crawling, bright satellites no matter how remote your location.

Crowded orbits

If mega-constellations of satellites become reality, the night sky will become a mundane highway of moving lights, obscuring the stars. Now, every time I see the bright reflection of a satellite tracking across the stars, I am reminded of what has already been approved by the United States Federal Communications Commission, the agency that regulates frequencies broadcast by satellites over the U.S., effectively putting itself in charge of regulating every space launch on the planet.

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SpaceX has already received approval for 12,000 Starlink satellites and is seeking approval for 30,000 more. Other companies are not far behind.

The Starlink mega-constellation itself would increase the number of active satellites more than tenfold: there are around 3,000 active satellites in orbit; current Starlinks are brighter than 99% of them because they are in lower orbits, closer to the surface of Earth, and more reflective than Starlink engineers predicted.

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