Sunday, January 16

Soon 1 in 15 points of light in the sky will be a satellite


I am out on my rural Saskatchewan farm chatting with my neighbors whom I have invited to view the night sky through my telescope. After exclamations and open-mouthed awe over the rings of Saturn, and the light that has been traveling through space for more than two million years to reach our eyes from the Andromeda galaxy, our conversation inevitably turns to the pandemic, our work-from-home arrangements and complaints about rural internet. My neighbor casually mentions that he just switched to Starlink for his internet provider.

I look up and notice a bright satellite moving across the sky, almost certainly a Starlink, as they now almost form half of the nearly 4,000 operational satellites and they are extremely bright. I take a deep breath and carefully consider how to discuss the substantial cost that we will all have to pay for Starlink Internet.

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I don’t blame my neighbors for changing. Here, as in many rural areas of North America, there is no excellent internet options, and with many people working and taking classes from home during the pandemic, anything that makes life easier is immediately accepted.

But I know exactly how high this cost could be. My article, to be published in The astronomical diary, have predictions of what the night sky will look like if satellite companies stick with their current plans. I also know that due to the geometry of sunlight and the orbits that have been chosen, 50 degrees north where I live will be the part of the world most affected.

Without regulation, I know that in the near future, one in 15 points that you can see in the sky will actually be relentlessly crawling satellites, not stars. This will be devastating for astronomical research and will completely change the night sky around the world.

The future is too, too bright

To find out how severely the night sky will be affected by sunlight reflected from planned mega-satellite constellations, we built a open source computer model for predicting the brightness of satellites seen from different places on Earth, at different times of the night, in different seasons. We also build a single web application based on this simulation.

A simulation of the brightness and number of satellites during a full night at 50 degrees North on the summer solstice.

Our model uses 65,000 satellites in the orbits featured by four mega-constellation companies: SpaceX Starlink and Amazon Kuiper (United States), OneWeb (United Kingdom) and StarNet / GW (China). We calibrate our simulation to match Starlink satellite telescope measurementsas they are by far the most numerous.

Starlink has so far made some progress toward dimming its satellites since its first launch, but most are still visible to the naked eye.

Our simulations show that in every part of the world, at every station, there will be tens to hundreds of satellites visible for at least an hour before sunrise and after sunset. Right now, it’s relatively easy to escape urban light pollution through dark skies while camping or visiting your cabin, but our simulations show that you can’t escape this new satellite light pollution anywhere on Earth, even at the North Pole.

The most severely affected places on Earth will be 50 degrees north and south, near cities like London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Kiev, Vancouver, Calgary, and my own home. At the summer solstice, from these latitudes, there will be about 200 satellites visible to the naked eye throughout the night.

A photo of the night sky showing telegraph cables, trees, and rays of light.
The mega constellations of satellites will be a visible distraction at night.
(Steve Elliott / flickr), CC BY

I study the orbital dynamics of the Kuiper belt, a belt of small bodies beyond Neptune. My research is based on long-exposure, wide-field imaging to discover and track these little bodies to know the history of our Solar System.

The telescope observations that are key to learning about our universe are about to be obtained. much, much more difficult due to the unregulated development of the space.

Astronomers are creating some Mitigation strategiesBut it will take time and effort that mega-constellation companies should pay for.

Unknown environmental costs

Starlink Internet may seem cheaper than other rural options, but this is due to many costs are discharged. An immediate cost is atmospheric pollution of the hundreds of rocket launches required to build and maintain this system.

Each satellite deployment dumps spent rocket bodies and other debris into the already crowded low Earth orbit, increasing collision risks. Some of this space debris will eventually return to Earth, and those parts of the globe with the highest densities of aerial satellites will also be the ones. most likely you will be literally shocked.

Starlink plans to replace each of the 42,000 satellites after five years of operation, which will require an average of 25 satellites per day to be exorbitant, about six tons of material. The mass of these satellites will not disappear, it will be deposited in the upper atmosphere. Because satellites primarily comprise aluminum alloys, they can form alumina particles as they vaporize in the upper atmosphere, potentially destroying ozone and causing changes in global temperature.

This has not yet been studied in depth because low Earth orbit is not currently subject to any environmental regulations.

A rocket with a large trail of white clouds against a bright blue sky
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, with satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network.
(AP Photo / John Raoux)

Regulating the sky

Currently, the low Earth orbit, where all these satellites are planned to operate, is almost completely deregulated. There are no rules on light pollution, air pollution from launches, air pollution from re-entry, or collisions between satellites.

These mega-constellations may not even be financially viable in the long term, and the internet speed may slow down when many users connect at the same time or when It’s raining.

But companies are launching satellites right now at a frantic rate, and the damage they do to the night sky, atmosphere, and low Earth orbit safety will not be undone even if operators go bankrupt.

There is no doubt that Internet users in rural and remote areas in many places have been left behind due to the development of Internet infrastructure. But there are many other options for Internet delivery that will not result in such extreme costs.

We cannot accept the global loss of access to the night sky, that we have been able to see and connect since we are human.

With cooperation rather than competition between satellite companies, we could have far fewer in orbit. By changing the design of the satellites, they could be made much dimmer and have less of an impact on the night sky. We should not have to choose between astronomy and the Internet.

But without regulations requiring these changes, or without strong consumer pressure to indicate the importance of the night sky, our view of the stars will soon change forever.The conversation

Samantha lawler, Assistant Professor of Astronomy, Regina University

This article is republished from The conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the Original article.


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