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Science and Innovations

Astronomers Worry As ‘Satellite Constellations’ Fill The Night Sky

Victoria Girgis, Lowell Observatory

A new kind of broadband internet is coming to Tuba City on the Navajo Nation, one beamed down from space by so-called “satellite constellations.” This technology can provide much-needed internet access in rural areas. But it comes with a dilemma. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny reports, the new satellites are so bright and so numerous, astronomers worry about the future of the night sky. 

A couple of years ago, a public educator named Victoria Girgis was showing a group of visitors around Flagstaff’s Lowell Observatory. They were looking at a group of galaxies through a telescope. "We were all looking up at the sky of course," Girgis recalls, "because it was outside, and that’s what you do an observatory, you admire the night sky."

Then she noticed something: "Dots moving across the sky, and they were all following each other in a line."

Girgis dashed to the telescope and took a picture, which would end up going viral on the Internet. It captured the first-ever launch of sixty Starlink satellites. "You couldn’t see any of the galaxies anymore, you could just see these bright diagonal lines going across the screen," she says.

T4: For many astronomers that photo was a wakeup call that ‘satellite constellations’ could be a problem. Jeff Hall, director of Lowell Observatory, says, "Everyone was caught off guard at how bright the satellites were. Including SpaceX, they were a little taken aback, too, at just how bright they were."

Hall and other astronomers have been working with the company SpaceX to try to find solutions. Once the satellites reach their final orbit, they’re just at the edge of human vision, "but for a major research telescope that is blindingly bright, even a smallish research telescope," Hall says.

And there’s so many of them. One hundred thousand new satellites are collectively planned by companies like SpaceX, Amazon, and OneWeb. (All three companies declined or did not respond to KNAU’s interview requests.) Their intent is to bring Internet to underserved rural areas like the Navajo Nation; a goal that’s taken on new urgency since the pandemic. Matt Fowler, a Coconino County spokesperson, says, "We have so many rural citizens... spread out in so many different areas, there are no other opportunities. You can’t push microwave into some of these areas, you can’t run fiber or copper or any other infrastructure, so really [Starlink] is the only option."

More than half of communities on the Navajo Nation lack any broadband access, a stark inequity and a health risk during a pandemic when students couldn’t log into online classes and people couldn’t apply for jobs from home. But in Tuba City, forty-five households now have internet thanks to a pilot program with Starlink. The homes were chosen because teachers, students, and first responders live there.

"On the very first evening that we actually got the equipment on the ground at the households," Fowler remembers, "we received numerous phone calls from people, very emotional, and crying."

This is the dilemma: how do you get desperately needed internet to rural areas while protecting the night sky? SpaceX is trying to darken their satellites, and Amazon will put its constellation in a low orbit to keep it out of sunlight for most of the night. These are voluntary actions by the companies, not mandated. John Barentine of the International Dark Sky Association says there aren’t many rules to regulate space. "The core of this policy is from a time when the concern was who was going to get to the moon first, was it going to be the US or the Soviets?" he says, referring to the Outer Space Treaty signed in 1967, when only a few dozen satellites had been successfully launched into orbit.

The growing numbers of satellites, Barentine says, is "putting pressure on this need to more clearly define the roles and responsibilities with respect to managing that sense of orbital space as this commons that belongs to all of us."

One research activity likely to be affected by satellite constellations is the search for asteroids that pose a threat to Earth. But Barentine also sees philosophical reasons for protecting the night sky: "There’s a longing, there’s a sense of connection to the cosmos that is deeply rooted within us, whether we consciously think about it or not."

Astronomers and representatives of satellite companies are meeting virtually this week to discuss ways to protect the sky in this new era they’re calling “the industrialization of space.”

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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