Astronomers Say Space X Astronomy Pollution Can't Be Fixed

from the blinded-by-the-light dept

We recently noted how the Space X launch of low orbit broadband satellites is not only creating light pollution for astronomers and scientists, but captured U.S. regulators, eager to try and justify rampant deregulation, haven’t been willing to do anything about it. While Space X’s Starlink platform will create some much needed broadband competition for rural users, the usual capacity constraints of satellite broadband mean it won’t be a major disruption to incumbent broadband providers. Experts say it will be painfully disruptive to scientific study and research, however:

While Space X says it’s taking steps to minimize the glare and “photo bombing” capabilities of these satellites (such as anti-reflective coating on the most problematic parts of the satellites), a new study suggests that won’t be so easy. The joint study from both the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) found that while Space X light pollution can be minimized somewhat, it won’t be possible to eliminate:

“Changes are required at both ends: constellation operators and observatories. SpaceX has shown that operators can reduce reflected sunlight through satellite body orientation, Sun shielding, and surface darkening. A joint effort to obtain higher-accuracy public data on predicted locations of individual satellites (or ephemerides) could enable some pointing avoidance and mid-exposure shuttering during satellite passage. Observatories will need to adopt more dynamic scheduling and observation management as the number of constellation satellites increases, though even these measures will be ineffective for many science programs.”

Granted, in March, Space X boss Elon Musk predicted there would be no impact whatsoever from his Starlink project:

“I am confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries. Zero. That’s my prediction. We’ll take corrective action if it’s above zero.”

The report, which was first spotted by Ars Technica, notes that enough data has been collected to clearly indicate the impact is well above zero. Worse, they note that companies have only just started launching low-orbit satellite constellations. OneWeb and Space X have only just begun their efforts, and Amazon is expected to join the fray in a major way. Collectively, these launches will create some significant problems for scientists around the planet, the report concludes:

“If the 100,000 or more LEOsats proposed by many companies and many governments are deployed, no combination of mitigations can fully avoid the impacts of the satellite trails on the science programs of current and planned ground-based optical-NIR [near-infrared] astronomy facilities. Astronomers are just beginning to understand the full range of impacts on the discipline. Astrophotography, amateur astronomy, and the human experience of the stars and the Milky Way are already affected.”

While Space X’s lower altitude satellite are problematic, higher altitude satellites being eyed by the likes of Amazon are notably worse, the experts found. In a press release the groups detailed several ways of minimizing the impact of low-orbit satellite constellations (including launching less of them). But that’s going to require a lot of collaboration between researchers and industry. Collaboration that would be easier if we had U.S. regulators actually interested in helping coordinate that collaboration.

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Companies: amazon, oneweb, spacex

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Ehud Gavron (profile) says:


Regulation hasn’t been the answer to anything. The free market-driven economy demands that.

You don’t get to call out those ISPs you don’t like and demand they be regulated. That’s not how it works.

Best of luck to SpaceX, and astronomers everywhere.

SpaceX is not obsolete. People who pontificate about required regulations are.


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Bloof (profile) says:

Re: Regulation

I remember when the free market looked at smoking killing people and dealt with it without the need for regulation, likewise asbestos and tetra-ethyl lead. Industry is knocking it out the park when it comes to regulating themselves on pollution and climate change, something they saw was a problem in the sixties and dealt with immediately by building taller oilrigs to deal with rising sea levels and attacking science. Problem solved! No regulation necessary, yep.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Regulation

You don’t get to call out those ISPs you don’t like and demand they be regulated. That’s not how it works.

Because all those mergers that AT&T vacuumed up – and promised with Ajit Pai and Richard Bennett’s blessings that they would work this time for sure, honest – clearly worked out well for them, right?

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Regulation

"You don’t get to call out those ISPs you don’t like and demand they be regulated"

I don’t personally, because outside the US they’re already very well regulated, and in return I have fast, cheap, reliable internet with real competition vying for my custom.I have no need to demand effective regulation because I’m already reaping its rewards, while you are getting constantly screwed.

What a shame that, yet again, the US is demanding that those who put profit over both people and the planet should just be allowed to pollute it for everyone.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
BernardoVerda (profile) says:

Elon Musk: Saint, or devil?

In some ways, Elon Musk is a desperately needed, benevolent, forward-looking, visionary genius
— but in other ways, Elon Musk is a dangerous, self-centred, verging on sociopathic, complete arsehole.

I really wonder how history will judge him.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Elon Musk: Saint, or devil?

He do and tweet some cringe-worthy things, but how many other self-made millionaires have found themselves with more than enough money for the rest of their life and consciously looked for things to do that they perceive would be of long-term benefit to mankind – and then gone out and done them, risking everything in the process. He pulled it off (so far) and as a result is a multi- multi-billionaire (at present) but that could all change faster than most realize.

All sorts of people who have done nothing are jealous and resentful of his success and entrenched industries who offer nothing in the way of solutions to long term problems feel (rightly) threatened and are engaging in smear campaigns and subtle and not so subtle sabotage.

Many (not all) of the things you hear about Elon Musk and his companies are deliberate falsehoods. He isn’t a saint, but he may well be much better than you give him creadit for.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Elon Musk: Saint, or devil?

Well, that depends on whether you believe the Musk haters who claim his father was stinking filthy rich and therefore Musk was a child of privilege or Musk himself who claims he came to Canada with his clothes and a box of books and owed $100,000 when he finished his education, doesn’t it?

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Elon Musk: Saint, or devil?

That’s a hilarious false dilemma there. Both are partly true. Musk did come from a family of wealth and privilege, from whom he received capital that gave him a massive boost early in his career. However, he also hated his father and did arrive in the US initially with nothing and did have debt when he got out of college.

If you’re trying to dispel myths, stop writing them as well.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Elon Musk: Saint, or devil?

Don’t forget calling a man risking his own life to safe trapped children a "pedo-guy". His is often cringe-worthy on twitter. On the other hand, after paypal, he has worked on and led the creation of companies that he seems to genuinely believe are for the long term betterment of humanity. He is also misquoted or selectively quoted out of context in ways that make his sound terrible when what he actually said is arguably reasonable.

Personally I think he is likely a damaged man, perhaps from his childhood in a truly toxic environment, who nonetheless does mean well, though sometimes may not be able to (or may forget to) tell what is actually good.

Alan says:

Zero impact is just wrong expectation

These satellites are not just good for competing against US broadband monopoly or serving remote areas with internet coverage. They lead us to a future where everywhere on earth is connected. It will bring countless new applications just like what GPS transformed our lives in merely 30 years. Mitigating their impact? Sure, but do not expect no impact to astronomy, or that we should stop doing this because of astronomy.

Vastly lower cost of lifting objects into space, the reason these satellites are feasible in the first place, means we should bring astronomy to space, where it truly belongs. The people a century from now will thank us for not stopping progress because some "legacy" industry demanded so.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Zero impact is just wrong expectation

It’s also worth noting that the image used in the video that initially made the rounds for how bad this was was itself a composite photograph using all bad light effects in a region to make a point, and the actual effect on astrophotography for NON-SCIENTIFIC uses can be fixed by using composites, which is already a common practice in the field to correct other problems.

For scientific research it’s pretty bad yeah.

That being said, I think a lot of people are taking sides on this without considering both costs and benefits (as you described)

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Zero impact is just wrong expectation

I’m not convinced that it’s actually that bad. Once in their target orbit, the time and place of the satellites is quite predictable, so the effect on observation should be as well. If a satellite is going to occlude the target, a few seconds delay will see the target clear. If a long exposure is desired, electronic shutters can prevent the satellite trail from ruining the observation. Maybe not in current telescopes but not to hard or expensive (compared with a telescope, say) to retrofit. I don’t see this being an insurmountable problem for narrow-field observations. Wide field is another matter, but even there a trianlge of three observatories a suitable distance apart would give images that could be composited into a clean observation, though this would admittedly be expensive.

The best solution would be space telescopes as cheap as terrestrial ones, which would be far better for astronomy, anyway, without the masking of the Earth’s atmosphere.

And finally, yes. The ruined commet photo was a total fraud. If it was a single photo, the starlink satellites were clearly a new batch, still orbit-raising, so a few seconds delay would have given a clear view of the comet. Blaming spaceX for that photo was rather like complaining that your photo of Betelgeuse was ruined because you shot it during the day.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Zero impact is just wrong expectation

Yes, there will be an impact on current astronomical methods. No need to consider the economic benefits to large numbers of rural poor or how easy most of the problems are to mitigate or the long term benefits to astronomy of cheap space access (which is what starlink is actually about).

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Zero impact is just wrong expectation

"They lead us to a future where everywhere on earth is connected. It will bring countless new applications just like what GPS transformed our lives in merely 30 years."

Not exactly. To remain functional that constellation has to be maintained by consistently firing new cubesats into orbit as the orbit of the older ones decays. The whole starlink network has to be effectively replaced every five years or so. That’s a very conservative 2 billion USD per year maintenance cost assuming 60 sats per launch and 200 launches required to replace the entire network. That’s assuming every launch reuses the Falcon 9.

Meanwhile correctly installed T1 fiber has a 1 in 100000 failure chance within 20-40 years, depending on the surroundings, and may well last centuries, with little maintenance required once the fiber’s in the ground.

Musks starlink constellation isn’t revolutionary infrastructure. It’s a short-term gimmick with extreme maintenance requirements which Musk admits himself doesn’t scale well and has very hard limits in how many clients it can accommodate, particularly in densely populated areas where the responsible cubesats quickly hit their 50k traffic limit.

"Vastly lower cost of lifting objects into space, the reason these satellites are feasible in the first place, means we should bring astronomy to space, where it truly belongs. "

Quite a few problems with that, unfortunately. Astronomy is pure science which brings no ROI, save for possibly being the only way in which we can detect a dinosaur killer closing in. That means if you have a budget of 25 million USD you can afford to build and operate an observatory array…but moving it into space costs 50 million more. It follows that the only astronomy tools you put into orbit are the highly specialized ones which in themselves cost billions.

But what we need is a few thousand observer arrays looking for, for instance, a shoemaker-levy aiming for earth rather than jupiter. Preferably spotting it in time to do much more than just carving a stone slab saying "Here Lies Humanity. Too dumb to live." as a warning to whatever sentient life arises a billion years down the line…

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TasMot (profile) says:

Except for bragging about a satellite system, you would think that burying fiber once would end up being cheaper (and way more permanent) than a satellite. Based on the launch and maintenance cost fiber sure does seem like a cheaper long term option. See here for cost references:,be%20almost%20%2414%2C000%20per%20pound.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Try to run buried fibre to every dwelling in the Rockies, and to all the towers needed to give continuous mobile coverage, with a low number of users per fibre. Add in the maintenance and repair costs, as fibre is not immune to backhoes, land slip, or earthquake. Add in above ground facilities needed, which likely includes solar power installations, along with their maintenance.

Satellites look attractive, especially as the same birds can service aircraft and ships in and other oceans, remote areas, such as the Canadian north, most of Siberia, Mongolia, Africa etc.

It looks like a lot of birds to service rural America, but be sure that the service will be expanded to other areas once the bugs are ironed out, and then it looks cheap compared to running fibre to service everywhere.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"Try to run buried fibre to every dwelling in the Rockies, and to all the towers needed to give continuous mobile coverage, with a low number of users per fibre."

Yes, that’s still cheaper.

The currently planned starlink network has to be completely replaced every five years or so. Maintenance cost is well over 2 billion USD a year for the launches alone. Then add the operating costs.

Properly deployed fiber has a 1 in 100000 chance of failing within 20-40 years and may remain fully functional for centuries.

"It looks like a lot of birds to service rural America, but be sure that the service will be expanded to other areas once the bugs are ironed out…"

No, there are hard limits on how many accounts every cubesat node can service. Basically if there are too many people in a given sat-covered cell on the map grid, the system fails.

So Starlink, no matter how you slice it, won’t ever be able to cover any township with a population exceeding around 50k.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"I stated that the expansion will be to other remote and hard to service parts of the world, along with ships and aircraft out over the oceans. and that will make much more economic sense."

It will, but recall that it’s a network which has to be replaced every five years, with launches alone costing 2 billion USD a year on top of the cubesat and operation costs. Try to count the miles of fiber that would place as a one-time investment with maintenance of the placed cable negligible in comparison.

Now if an ISP goes out of business the cable is still in the ground. The hardware remains. Close-orbit satellite constellations aren’t a sustainable solution even in the short term.

It’s an interesting experiment and I can see it working only while money is still poured into it, but it’s an incredibly wasteful solution using individually cheap disposables to stretch staggering costs over time.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Addendum: Also, for ships and aircraft satellite communication already exists linked to satellites in geosynchronous orbits.

I can accept starlink being an interim while fiber is slowly laid to desolate places and 3G signal towers set up to handle the last miles, but in the long run all it’ll be good for is to supply ships and airplanes already in possession of satellite communications with broadband.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Siberia, most of which is remote, is larger than the USA, 13 million square kilometres, as oppose to 9.8. Africa is larger than the USA, China, India, western Europe combined. Running in fibre is not that easy.

Large parts of Siberia, Alaska, and Northern Canada are not served by roads. Access is via water ways in summer, and Ice roads in winter, and small plane where landing strips have been built, or float planes can operate. Also, real mountain areas are far more difficult to run fibre through due to limited access, like 4wd trucks if you are lucky, and thin soils, only inches deep, which make getting ducts below the frost line difficult, like use explosives and the risk of causing a landslide. Also surface ducts are exposed to falling rocks and avalanches as well as landslip.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

"Running in fibre is not that easy. "

Most places considered remote are so for a reason – because there’s not enough people there for infrastructure to be built and the large wastes you describe are too far from civilization to even be part of the power grid and regular phone network.

Expanding on that logic Starlink’s sole reason to exist is that it would provide broadband to the <1% of the global population which already has "normal" satellite communication as an option yet are choosing to live at the ends of the earth.

That’s a long way to go when you consider that cubesat constellations are incredibly expensive to maintain AND screw up the part of astronomy which lets us watch for falling mountain-sized rocks and icebergs.

And the only real positive you get is that in addition to voice phone a siberian prospector will be able to run League of Legends on the tablet he chose to bring.

Ray says:

Astronomers Say Space X Astronomy Pollution Can't Be Fixed

I’m in total agreement with professor Queloz. I seriously doubt such a huge amount of these satellites are needed. It’s my feeling that we’ve been given a planet we should be taking care of, not trashing out for profiteering. Musk and Bezos are only interested in money and power. Should we give them full control of everything ? Let’s get real. These satellites won’t be used just for communications. I think most folks are getting more than a little concerned about their privacy to which they are fully entitled. Thank you

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