March 1, 2024

Satellite Megaconstellations Are Ruining Space Exploration

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A composite of 29 individual exposures from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Maunakea, taken in August 2022. The horizontal and diagonal white lines are bright satellites that unexpectedly flew across the field of view during the observations, covering any objects behind them. Credit: P. Cowan/W. Fraser/S. Lawler/CLASSY Research Team/CFHT

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A composite of 29 individual exposures from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Maunakea, taken in August 2022. The horizontal and diagonal white lines are bright satellites that unexpectedly flew across the field of view during the observations, covering any objects behind them. Credit: P. Cowan/W. Fraser/S. Lawler/CLASSY Research Team/CFHT

I loved rocket launches when I was younger. During each launch, I imagined what it would be like to be an astronaut sitting in the spacecraft, hearing the final countdown and then feeling several gees pushing me upward through the atmosphere and away from our blue marble.

But as I learned more about the severe limitations of human spaceflight, I turned my attention to the oldest and most accessible form of space exploration: the science of astronomy.

Since 2019, I’ve watched my unbridled enthusiasm for rocket launches dwindle to lukewarm interest and finally sour to outright dread. The corporate space race, led by SpaceX, is entirely responsible for this transformation in my mindset.

I’m worried about the complete shift to the move-quick-and-break-things attitude coming from the technology sector rather than government scientific agencies. I am discouraged by the colonialist language and the billionaire worship of private companies. I am increasingly furious about the non-existent public education and lack of transparency offered by these companies.

The final nail in the coffin of my love of rocket launches came with SpaceX’s Starlink satellite megaconstellations.

Crowded orbits

The corporate space race is well underway, with private companies flooding Low Earth Orbit with thousands of mass-produced satellites. In previous decades, the prohibitively high cost of launch prevented the rate of increase and the total number of satellites from growing too quickly. But launches have been getting cheaper and cheaper for years.

SpaceX has launched thousands of its own Starlink communications satellites, as well as hundreds of satellites for its direct competitors. Half of all launches worldwide in 2023 were SpaceX rockets.

As an astronomer, I am painfully aware of what these thousands of new satellites have done to the night sky around the world. They reflect sunlight long after the sky has darkened, looking like moving stars.

Starlink satellites are the most numerous and occupy some of the lowest orbits, so they make up the majority of satellites seen in the sky.

Last year, SpaceX launched one of the brightest objects in the sky on behalf of another company: BlueWalker 3, a satellite with the same footprint in the sky as a small house. They plan to operate a fleet of dozens, each as bright as the brightest stars in the sky.


Al Jazeera reports on the impacts of Starlink satellites.

Lost information and knowledge

These satellites are now increasingly obstructing telescopic space exploration, both on the ground and in space. Astronomers are the canaries in the coal mine of this rapidly expanding in-orbit experiment: we see these satellites affecting more and more of our research every day.

Over the past five years, I have watched as satellite streaks in my own research images from the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope have changed from an unusual occurrence to missing data in almost every image.

Astronomy is the only way to learn about the universe, the overwhelming majority of which can never be explored by humans. The farthest man-made object from Earth is the Voyager 1 probe, now eight times further from the Sun than Neptune after 46 years of continuously traveling significantly faster than a speeding bullet.

But even if Voyager 1 were pointed directly at our nearest neighboring star, Proxima Centauri (it isn’t), it would take more than 100,000 years to get there. We are light years away from having technology that can robotically explore even our neighboring solar systems on a human timescale, let alone take humans to the stars.

The vast majority of astronomical research is carried out by telescopes on Earth: large optical telescopes on remote mountaintops, large radio telescopes in radio-quiet zones that are meticulously maintained, as well as smaller telescopes scattered throughout the world.

There are several telescopes in low Earth orbit that also have to deal with light pollution from Starlink and other megaconstellations. There are also some telescopes outside Earth’s orbit that can only operate for a few years, unlike ground-based facilities that can be maintained and improved with new technologies for decades.

Necessary government regulation

Space exploration using Earth-based telescopes is becoming less and less effective as more bright, radio-heavy satellites are placed between Earth and the stars. But there are far worse problems ahead if companies continue to launch satellites: air pollution at launch and re-entry, risks of ground-based accidents from re-entries, and the very real possibility of a cascade of uncontrolled collisions in orbit, known as Kessler Syndrome.

Satellites are an incredibly useful part of our lives, but there are limits to how many can safely orbit the Earth. Current regulations on launches and orbital operations by governments are very weak and are not prepared for the current regime of thousands of new satellites per year.

Regulation on the number of satellites in orbit would force companies to improve technology and service models that use fewer satellites, keeping the orbit usable for future generations.

Ask your government representatives to support satellite regulation and rural broadband expansion. Get out and enjoy your dark skies, before they change.

With proper regulation, our oldest form of space exploration can continue. I desperately hope we never reach a point where natural patterns in the sky are drowned out by anthropogenic ones, but without regulation, companies will get us there soon.

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