March 2020 – WinStars 3

Satellite megaconstellations: a threat to astronomy

Starlink is a project of the american company SpaceX that will provide high-speed Internet connection anywhere on the surface of the globe through a myriad of satellites designed for this purpose.

To reduce latency delays, these small satellites weighing less than 260 kg will be placed on low orbits at an altitude of a few hundred kilometres. At term, these satellites will form a fleet of more than 42,000 objects!

This project is a real disaster for astronomers who fear that their work will be seriously affected by these intruders who could parasitize the regions of the sky observed by scientific instruments. This pollution will not only affect deep-sky pictures but could also affect the radiotelescopes that observe the sky in other regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. The exasperation is growing as professional and amateur astronomers notice the first effects of the incessant passing of satellites in the field of view of the instruments.

Detector field of the Blanco telescope of 4 meters diameter installed on Cerro Tololo in Chile. Practically all the sensors of the detector is covered by the light bursts coming from the Starlink satellites during the six-minute exposure that was to be used to search for new dwarf galaxies next to the Large Magellanic Cloud.

But Elon Musk’s company isn’t the only one that wants to use low Earth orbits. OneWeb and Amazon are already working on concurrent projects that will, in a few years, fill the sky with hundreds of thousands of light points impossible to remove.

It will imply the pure and simple transformation of the sky as we know it, making any research in astrophysics impossible from Earth. This is a natural patrimony accessible to all, already well damaged by anarchic peri-urban lighting, which will disappear forever.

Unfortunately, it seems difficult to fight against these huge corporations that decide, in total impunity, to deprive mankind of the spectacle of the night sky. Every month, they obtain authorisation for launching new satellites from organisations such as the International Telecommunication Union or the Federal Communications Commission, using the current legal gap and rules that have become obsolete as a result of this race to space. These  megaconstellations also considerably increase the risk of collisions and could saturate the nearby space with debris of all kinds.

Astronomes can only protest and try to alert public opinion and governments to the dangers of these uncontrollable projects.

To see the extent of the damage, the latest version of WinStars displays the position of the StarLink constellation satellites in real time.

Just go to Solar system objects/satellites menu, use the Update object orbit elements option and select, one by one, all the satellites whose name starts with Starlink.

Starlink satellites in planetarium mode