Starlink Is ‘Forced’ To Finally Start Caring About The System’s Light Pollution And Harm To Scientific Research

from the sorry-about-that-whole-astronomy-thing dept

For years, scientific researchers have warned that Elon Musk’s Starlink low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite broadband constellations are harming scientific research. Simply put, the light pollution Musk claimed would never happen in the first place is making it far more difficult to study the night sky, a problem researchers say can be mitigated somewhat but never fully eliminated.

Musk and company long claimed they were working on upgraded satellites that are less obtrusive to scientists (using dielectric mirror film and solar array changes to minimized reflection), but it’s Musk, so those solutions haven’t materialized years after they were promised.

That said, Space X and Starlink SpaceX has entered into a coordination agreement with the US National Science Foundation (NSF) to try and mitigate some of the worst effects its Starlink satellite network is having on ground-based astronomy observations. The issue was forced by the Biden FCC, which wouldn’t give approval full Starlink’s 30,000 satellite launches until such a deal was struck:

According to reports, the FCC gave permission for the company to launch 7,500 of the nearly 30,000 satellites it hopes to send aloft, while deferring consideration of the rest of the constellation and making a coordination agreement with the NSF a condition of the licence.

Musk being Musk, and the FCC being, well, the FCC, there’s no guarantee that the talks ever amount to much, that SpaceX and Starlink adheres to any requirements that come from the deal, or that the FCC will hold anybody accountable should Space X and Starlink fail to address concerns. That’s in large part because the agreements are entirely voluntary:

The agreement is voluntary, since beyond the FCC requirement for such an agreement in the Gen2 Starlink license there is no law or policy requiring SpaceX or other satellite operators to mitigate the effects of their constellation on astronomy.

Again, it’s worth reiterating that Musk insisted that none of this would ever be a problem. And regulators, wary of being accused of harming innovation, didn’t even consider acting until it was already a widespread problem.

It’s also worth reiterating that while Starlink is a useful service for those with no other broadband options, the system’s capacity constraints mean it can never really function at the kind of scale needed to truly address even just the U.S.’ broadband gaps. The service, with a $710 first month charge for hardware and service, still falls well short on a main obstacle to broadband adoption: affordability.

In the interim, astronomers have been forced to adopt elaborate and costly countermeasures, such as a system that tracks all low-orbit positions allowing them to turn off observatory systems when needed. The problem: the solutions place the onus on researchers, and they don’t scale to handle the massive incoming parade of low-orbit systems coming from SpaceX, Amazon, and others.

A voluntary overlay asking SpaceX and Starlink to at least try to not demolish astronomy could prove somewhat performative if there are no hard requirements or penalties involved.

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Companies: spacex, starlink

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Comments on “Starlink Is ‘Forced’ To Finally Start Caring About The System’s Light Pollution And Harm To Scientific Research”

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Matthew M Bennett says:

The FCC doesn't control low-earth orbit

No country does. And while 30k satellites sure is a lot (apparently there’s a little more than 8k in orbit now) it’s not like Musk is going to be the only one doing this. I would expect the Chinese to do it as soon as they are able (providing heavily firewalled access to most of Africa, perhaps) and you know they’ll give NO fucks.

In reality tracking even 100,000 objects on a known trajectory is pretty easy to do with modern software, this is just a case of astronomers not anticipating the need and the future coming at you fast. With enough planning you can even filter out the light and not shut down the OCDs. It’s nice of Musk to try to reduce the glare his satellites cause but it’s definitely not going to be just him in the near future, the burden to adapt is really on the astronomers.

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Matthew M Bennett says:

Re: Re:

Actually have a physics degree, wanted to be an astronomer at one point. Have actually built a very small satellite even (technically subortbital, but it left the atmosphere, it was a spectrometer)

I know you called yourself “sky guy” but the chances are really high I know more about astronomy than you. Like I’ve never worked an automated telescope but the pool of people who have done so is really small.

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Matthew M Bennett says:

Re: Re: Re:2

It really kinda doesn’t, you fucken moron.

Here I am, knowing that you’re getting really angry over emotions and who’s side you want to take rather than any logic of it.

Satellites exist, there’s going to be a lot more. I’m sure astronomers would love it if the night skies were as empty as 1950 but that just isn’t feasible and definitely isn’t going to happen. They would like it if street lights didn’t exist and everyone avoided certain radio bands but that also isn’t going to happen.

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Matthew M Bennett says:

Re: Re:

Well for one thing, not a crime. Not sure I even agree it’s “problematic”.

And it’s not a reason cuz it’s going to happen regardless, three’s literally no avoiding it. Like you can get real upset the famer’s fertilizer stinks but that’s how the food gets grown.

Or maybe a better analogy, it’s sorta like complaining about the offshore wind farm ruining your view. Too bad!

Like I’m all for astronomy but it’s easier for them to plan for interruptions and blocking than for satellites not to reflect light. (also in favor of them reducing their profile but there are limits to that)

Realistically in a few decades only the space based telescopes will be able to do truly useful work anyway. Be more worried about them getting hit by starlink (I’m kidding, they’re usually much higher orbit) a light artifact.

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“You people need to grow up.”

That’s right You People!
What is is wrong with You People anyways?

Why can”t yOU pEOplE just grow up and believe the bullshit like I did? Believing the lies is a sign of maturity, makes you a rugged individual Marlboro man wearing a ten gallon hat.

Wait, was that too stereotypical? lol, too bad YoU PeOplE

xyzzy (profile) says:

Not just Starlink or Musk

This is just one example of one I have seen repeated over and over, and at all scales.

What harm can X do whether X be satellites, mines, big tobacco, thalidomide, fentanyl, plastic waste, fossil fuels, overfishing, dams, carbon emissions, on and on, it is always the same damn story. Lie about impact, prevaricate over remediation and run away from the problem.

Companies are just like Elon, selfish amoral liars, assigning no value to truth and decency. Government has a role policing that psychopathic behavior through rules and regulations, a role it has dismally failed to fulfill, mainly through lack of effective investment in the apparatus needed, and the absence of law underpinning the mechanisms of enforcement

Anonymous Coward says:


“.. thus delaying science itself, so they could Play amateur astronomer first.”

Had not seen this part of the story, kind of curious .. got a reference on that?

fwiw .. some of the so called amateur astronomers have made rather important observations resulting in advancements in the field. But let’s just denigrate them for donating their time and resources.

JBD44 (profile) says:

Well, so it goes...

So here we are, another tech innovation which is a double-edged sword that undoubtedly will cut someone. I first saw it in the early 80’s with automatic cameras? When I was a young lad and working for a newspaper, it forced many of us out since then even a reporter could take basic photos… How about the Internet in general, with dysfunctional young folks who can only text, and can’t read anything longer than a webscreen? Now watch for the howl about self-driving cars; they will put insurance companies out of business along with car sales and mechanics when no one is having to own a car anymore. ChatGPT will no doubt put many professionals out of work, when you don’t need them anymore to get an opinion. Same old story guys, Someone is always complaining that they’ve been hurt… but that’s progress, right? Just background music to anything new, amplified by who’s complaining (for the children), the target of the complaint (who you love to hate), and who cares to listen, folks who want to save or hate the same people as the pundits who spread this stuff. Ahh, just wish all those horse wranglers had a voice in the 1900’s when they were put out of business by the advent of the automobile! Those damn cars, and that Henry Ford…bet he’s a republican too…

anymouse says:

Queue the next Armageddon Movie

I can just see the new Armageddon Movie, it’s only about 20 minutes, because once the astronomers determine that the anomaly they spotted is actually a 100 Kilo-ton meteor, and not just another piece of Musk’s ‘space junk'(tm), it’s too late to do anything about it…

Queue Exploding Earth scene, with Musk waving out of his Mars expedition rocket headed to Mars.

End of Movie/World as we know it

There is a reason we try to watch the skies… it may be a 1/100,000,000,000,000 chance of a life ending meteor hitting, but we know it’s happened at least once before to our planet, so not an impossibility (don’t even start with the lightning never strikes twice in the same place argument… it does)

LostInLoDOS (profile) says:

Minor correction

… “And Harm To
[antiquated, inferior, low budget, and generally minimal comparative value]
Scientific Research”

Why people defend these money sink projects here on earth, is beyond me.
You can launch a satellite and do the same research, in better conditions for research, for a fraction of the cost of the majority of terrestrial stations.
These land projects are under funded, over costly, half abandoned. Produce little of value today. And are generally ignored.

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