The end of the night sky as we know it? Local astronomers see SpaceX as threat

  • James Lowenthal is shown in downtown Northampton in May. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Daniela Calzetti, professor and head of the University of Massachusetts astronomy department, talks Wednesday about the effects communication satellites have on the work that astronomers do, in the department’s offices in the Lederle Graduate Research Tower. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daniela Calzetti, professor and head of the University of Massachusetts astronomy department, talks about the effects communication satellites have on the work that astronomers do. Photographed in the department’s offices in the Lederle Graduate Research Tower on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daniela Calzetti, professor and head of the University of Massachusetts astronomy department, talks about the effects communication satellites have on the work that astronomers do. Photographed in the department’s offices in the Lederle Graduate Research Tower on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daniela Calzetti, professor and head of the University of Massachusetts astronomy department, talks about the effects communication satellites have on the work that astronomers do. Photographed in the department’s offices in the Lederle Graduate Research Tower on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daniela Calzetti, professor and head of the University of Massachusetts astronomy department, talks about the effects communication satellites have on the work that astronomers do. Photographed in the department’s offices in the Lederle Graduate Research Tower on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Daniela Calzetti, professor and head of the University of Massachusetts astronomy department, talks about the effects communication satellites have on the work that astronomers do. Photographed in the department’s offices in the Lederle Graduate Research Tower on Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket, with a payload of 60 satellites for SpaceX's Starlink broadband network, lifts off from Space Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Thursday, May 23, 2019. AP PHOTO/JOHN RAOUX

Staff Writer
Published: 11/13/2019 2:01:06 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Internet from outer space. It sounds like a futuristic concept, but according to some astronomers, a planned network of thousands of satellites providing broadband service may actually threaten the future of astronomy.

On Monday, aerospace company SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites into orbit, adding on to 60 satellites that were released in May. The satellites currently in orbit are only the beginning of SpaceX’s plans — the company, headed by tech giant Elon Musk, has received U.S. Federal Communications Commission approval to launch 12,000 Starlink satellites and has requested an allowance of 30,000.

The satellites “will provide fast, reliable internet to populations with little or no connectivity,” according to a SpaceX press release, “including those in rural communities and places where existing services are too expensive or unreliable.” The satellite components will also “quickly burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

But the futuristic venture has the potential to hide the night sky from both the naked eye and telescopes, according to some astronomers. James Lowenthal, an astronomy professor at Smith College, is among those to voice concerns over the project, primarily related to light pollution.

“We’re not sure if astronomy can survive in the era of large satellite constellations,” Lowenthal said. “It might actually be an existential threat.”

Lowenthal regularly communicates with SpaceX as a member of the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on Light Pollution, Radio Interference and Space Debris. The Starlink satellites raise concern on all three issues the committee looks at, Lowenthal said, though it is mainly focusing on light pollution. The committee has proposed modifications such as darkening the satellites to make them less reflective.

“We astronomers need clear dark skies to do our work, and we need skies that are free of moving bright objects, enough at least for us to peer out into the universe and ask the questions we ask,” he said.

Light pollution from cities and towns have made these dark skies harder to access, Lowenthal added, but astronomers have always been able to find remote locations such as deserts and mountaintops to conduct their research. But because the satellites would be scattered around the globe, astronomers would not be able to easily avoid them.

Daniela Calzetti, a professor and department head of astronomy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, also said that Starlink can be “in some cases pretty devastating” to astronomy. Astronomers sometimes need to throw out observations due to satellite patterns on their images, she said, and with an increasing number of satellites in the sky, this issue will only grow.

“There were times when there weren’t as many satellites,” Calzetti said. “Things are getting worse and worse.”

SpaceX responds

The Committee on Light Pollution, Radio Interference and Space Debris has had “cordial” correspondence with SpaceX, Lownenthal said, and the company has expressed “a willingness to communicate with us and commendable desire to help fix the problem, with the constraints that they’re still going to launch their satellites.” SpaceX has not provided any concrete plans on how it will respond to the issues raised, according to Lowenthal.

A spokeswoman for SpaceX said that the company is “actively working with leading astronomy groups from around the world to make sure their work isn’t affected” and is taking action to make the next wave of Starlink satellite bases black. If needed, the company will also adjust satellite orbits as needed to allow sensitive space observations, she said.

But a lack of international agreements governing the issue intensifies the problem, Calzetti said. As of now, no international law specifically limits parameters such as how many satellites a company can place into orbit.

Calzetti said that she sees the positive impact of the satellites providing more people with an internet connection, but greater regulation of these satellites is needed to ensure “the right of people to have safe and reliable communications, and the right of other communities to be able to see the night sky.”

Lowenthal said he also recognizes that improved internet access could make positive impacts on human life. But the potential impact of such satellites on the night sky could mean “a tragic loss” of humanity’s ancient connections to the universe, he said.

“In my view,” Lowenthal said, “it’s not just really up to some private company to take away all of humanity’s view of nature at night without full discussion and input from a broad array of people and institutions, and everyone affected.”

SpaceX anticipates Starlink will be available in the Northern U.S. and Canada in 2020 and achieve “near global coverage of the populated world by 2021,” according to the Starlink website.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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