Starlink is the Elon Musk-owned SpaceX satellite broadband project aiming to eventually launch tens of thousands of satellites to Earth orbit to deliver internet around the world. But although admirable idea, astronomers increasingly believe Starlink will affect humanity’s ability to save itself from annihilation from an asteroid collision.
Dr Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics believes the nascent Starlink has already adversely impacted the vital search for new asteroids able to inflict death from above.
I think Starlink will make this the science difficult
Dr Jonathan McDowell
He told Express.co.uk: Although SpaceX Starlink is not yet posing a problem for spotting asteroids, it is a nuisance.
“But Starlink is going to be a problem within a couple of years while they put up all these satellites.
“There are 300 Starlink satellites up right now, with 60 more going up in a few days.
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“But SpaceX is planning for up to 12,000 satellites or even more.
“So while a constellation of 300 is a pain in the neck, we can handle it – 12,000 is going to make it very difficult, especially for these asteroids.”
Starlink poses a unique problem for astronomers due to both their eventual quantity and their relatively low orbiting distance.
Most astronomers work in the middle of the night, when the sky is as dark as possible because they are looking at distant galaxies.
However, asteroids on a possible collision course with Earth, are close in the sky to the Sun, meaning astronomers have to look as close to the Sun as possible.
Unfortunately, this takes place as soon as the Sun sets – but this twilight period is exactly when most of the Starlink satellites are illuminated.
Although the Sun is set on Earth, it hasn’t set 300 miles up, meaning Starlink satellites are still reflecting the Sun.
At any given time, there could be hundreds of these satellites illuminated as astronomers attempt to observe the twilight sky, a period known as the astronomical twilight, which is the first few hours of the night.
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Dr McDowell said: “So early in the night, there’s going to be lots of these things, making it very difficult to take a picture without one of these things, leaving a bloody great streak across your image.
“I think that will make this the science difficult.
“If there’s 10 streaks on every astronomical image – which I don’t think we’re going to see but that’s the logical extreme – then you’re completely hosed as we say in America.
“It’s unclear just how bad it’s going to be right now, but it’s not an order of magnitude away from the really bad case.
“And even if Starlink ends up being not so bad, allowing astronomers to work around it without an extreme amount of effort, the next constellation might be worse.
“It’s not out of bounds that someone could put up a constellation that would make this kind of astronomy completely impossible.
“Therefore, I think there needs to be discussion about the night sky as a shared resource for humanity and who should regulate it and who should decide how it gets changed.”
The English-born Harvard academic believes the only solution is for “compromises to be made on both sides”.
He said: “SpaceX has said they’re going to try and reduce the brightness of their satellites which might help a bit but it doesn’t seem like they’ve been successful on their first try at this.
“Maybe you could require them to have a little higher orbits, but we’re not sure if that’s going to help yet.
“Maybe there is certainly at some stage, a carrying capacity of Earth orbit that you’re going to have to regulate just how many satellites can be up there.
“And that’s not just for astronomers – that’s just to stop them all hitting each other.
“We’re not far off that, so I think there’s going to be some regulation that isn’t there right now.
Hopefully we can find a happy medium, because we all want cheap internet.
“And we all want a future in which there’s lots of industrial activity in space – I think that’s cool – but it has to be just like industrial activity on Earth.
“It has to be done with care with sensitivity to the environment, and so I think we can find a liveable compromise in the same way we regulate industries on Earth.”
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