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Why Astronomers Worry About SpaceX's Starlink Satellite Megaconstellation Light



SpaceX plans to launch the second installment of Starlink megaconstellation on Monday (Nov. 11), and is waiting to see astronomers – well, that's exactly what they'll find.

When the company is waiting. it launched the first set of Starlink internet satellites in May, eyes catching the night sky immediately realizing that things were incredibly bright. Professional astronomers worry satellites interfere with scientific observations and amateur appreciation of stars.

"That was the first few nights, it was like, & # 39; Holy unpublished word, & # 39;" Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Space.com. "That kind of was the wake-up call ."

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SpaceX and its leader, Elon Musk, have assured astronomers that once satellites are fixed in the area, they will prevent repairs as the stars they name. McDowell wanted to confirm the accuracy of Musk's statement, so he asked an email Listserv of amateur astronomers to wait for the first batch of Starlink satellites to reach their final orbit, after comparing the brightness of the specific satellite to the stars around them.

Those observations began in July. McDowell did not complete a complete review, but he said the preliminary results were concerning, with Starlink satellites routinely marching at magnitudes between 4 and 7, which is obviously sufficient to detect without a telescope. "The answer below is, you can always see these things," he said.

The initial launch of Starlink brought 60 satellites, but that was only a tiny fraction of what SpaceX described as its long-term plan, with launching thousands of devices in orbit . "If you're talking about 30,000 satellites, and many above the horizon at any time, that's what's new about it," McDowell said. "Not only will this be an occasional interruption, it will be continuous."

McDowell and his colleagues who specialize in optical astronomy are not used to ignore the masonry of technology as astronomy. But this is a position astronomers in the radio are familiar with, as satellites transmit data to their people at radio frequencies. "That's something that people realize is coming," he said, "while the light pollution aspect caught us by surprise."

In response to the scream, Musk said in May that he "sent" a note to Starlink's team last week specifically about reducing albedo, "referring to the amount of light displayed by satellites. In a separate tweet on the issue, Musk also stated that SpaceX did not intend to interfere with optical astronomy. "That said, we will make sure Starlink will have no material impact on astronomical discoveries. We care a great deal about science, " he wrote .

But McDowell complains that SpaceX has not provided any details about what satellites are changing can withstand and how much they can darken. He hopes to repeat his brilliance check once the Starlink satellites that SpaceX plans to launch next week reach their final orbits.

"Can we expect it to improve things, but let's see, the proof is in the pudding, right? "he said." All we can do now is continue with what they really put in there. And what they really put out there are really bright satellites that if you have many thousands of them represent a severe night sky change . "

For McDowell, the concern was about more than Starlink or SpaceX in particular." The whole new dimension of this industrialization means that this is a problem we must start worrying about, and with in fact, the concern should have started about 10 years ago, "he said." I'm not trying to say we shouldn't do megaconstellations. But let us do this, let us examine the level of light pollution, let us manage it as a resource. "

He hopes the space community has adopted a general practice. About how much light pollution individuals have. project can come up, similar to existing guidelines for managing debris of space. "We thought we would overlook the age of space in astronomy, but here it is," McDowell said. "Now we have to take it seriously and deal with it. the effects of ground-based astronomy. "

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels . on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook .

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