DarkSats ain't dark enough: SpaceX Starlink satellites continue to ruin it for astronomers

SpaceX's megaconstellation also sets a precedent for other companies to follow suit with their own, without considering the needs of the astronomy community, say experts.


The huge swarm of internet-beaming satellites in the growing Starlink constellation launched by SpaceX continues to be an eyesore and a hindrance to the astronomy community. A recent change made to the exterior surface of the satellites to reduce its visibility in the night sky has made a small difference – just not nearly enough for it not to be a problem for making astronomy observations.

Starting May 2019, SpaceX has launched batches of its Starlink satellites – 60 at a time – with the ultimate goal of having a "mega constellation" of some 30,000 small, internet-beaming satellites.

Not long after the first batch of Starlink satellites launched in 2019, astronomers were quick to realize that the volume and reflectivity of the satellites made it visible in the night sky – as an unmistakable trail of lights in the sky.

The satellites were so reflective that they obstructed the already complex work being done towards studying the cosmos in space observatories around the world.

The US-operated Vera C Rubin Observatory in Chile is a gigantic telescope that has been in the works for over two decades, with a many-million-dollar pricetag. It was designed to begin the deepest survey of the night sky ever in 2022. As per a report in the Guardian, astronomers are now wondering how the Starlink constellation will streak across its images every night, and what it might obstruct in the process.

Also read: Vera C Rubin Observatory captures stunning, record-breaking first photo of broccoli

 DarkSats aint dark enough: SpaceX Starlink satellites continue to ruin it for astronomers

Train of Starlink satellites visible in the night sky seen in this video captured by satellite tracker Marco Langbroek in Leiden, the Netherlands on 24 May, a day after SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites on a Falcon 9 rocket. Image credit: Marco Langbroek via SatTrackBlog

Important astronomical events can take place either over a long period of time or in the blink of an eye. Astronomers need to make careful calculations, and find a perfect spot and window of time to make these observations, and capture them on record.

While the satellites follow a straight and predictable path in the sky, several thousand similarly bright satellites streaking across the sky could be a colossal distraction to the stargazing and astronomy communities. Imagine a brightly-lit train moving chaotically why you're out in a conservatory to quietly observe the behaviour of lions.

SpaceX did attempt to address the issue. They responded by redesigning the Starlink satellite exterior, making all the satellites launched thereafter – "DarkSats" – less-reflective. They even published a paper with proof that it made the satellites significantly dimmer.

However, Scientific American reports that the alteration has made little difference, with the DarkSats still bright enough to obstruct surveys of the sky at day or nighttime. The upgraded DarkSats appear half as bright as the original Starlink fleet, the report says, which is progress.

However, the streaks of light as satellites pass overhead is still a challenge for astronomers to make uninterrupted observations of space objects and events.

Astronomer Meredith Rawls from the University of Washington told SciAm that if SpaceX continues without fixing the issue, it sets a precedent for other companies to follow suit and launch their own mega constellations without regard for the needs of the astronomy community.

If the issue persists, scientists may have no option but to take Elon Musk up on his suggestion of having observatories in orbit, beyond the range of view-blocking satellites.

Also read: Star Caravan: SpaceX Starlink satellites spark UFO frenzy among Dutch astronomers

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