Tesla’s Mega-constellation Worries Astronomers

Tesla’s Mega-constellation Worries Astronomers

The Starlink satellite network has 180 objects in orbit and thousands are still waiting to join them. The formation of this “mega-constellation” worries astronomers whose analyses are subject to numerous interferences.

Since Monday, January 6, the Starlink satellite network of Elon Musk’s aerospace company, SpaceX, has had 180 satellites in orbit around the Earth. Eventually, it is intended to form a “mega-constellation” of more than 40,000 satellites, dedicated to distributing an Internet connection to the entire world. If the objective is noble, it seems today to be achieved at the expense of science. Indeed, more and more researchers are complaining about real “photobombs” caused by Elon Musk’s small white satellites and the traces they leave on their passage through the starry sky after their launch. In November 2019, two astronomers based at the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile, which is supposed to monitor the movements of the closest asteroids, had their work spoiled by Starlink satellites. Currently meeting in Hawaii for the 235th Annual Astrophysics and Astronomy Conference, many astrophysicists and astronomers discussed this growing problem and possible solutions.

Satellites vs. Astronomers

The speakers first of all highlighted the harmful consequences of the establishment of private satellite networks such as Starlink, OneWeb or Amazon’s Kuiper project. First, these satellites interfere with the images taken from the sky by astronomical telescopes for two reasons: their white colour and metal panels, which reflect light, and the particle tracks they leave, like airplanes, for a week while they are positioned in higher orbit. Even when positioned more than 500 kilometres above the ground surface, they remain visible from telescopes. “These satellites are brighter than 99 percent of other objects in orbit,” said Patrick Seitzer, an astronomer at the University of Michigan in the United States. In addition, the light they reflect saturates and damages the very expensive lenses of observation devices. The same goes for the radio waves that some satellites can emit, saturating the receivers of astronomical observatories.

However, Jonathan McDowell, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, admitted that “SpaceX shows a real willingness to fix this problem. “Among the 60 new satellites launched this week, Elon Musk’s company had painted one of them black. The idea is to test whether this new tint could alleviate the problem of light reflection, by generalising it in the future. During the conference, in response to the astronomers’ concerns, Patricia Cooper, SpaceX’s vice president of satellite management, reportedly said that the company did not initially expect to cause such “brightness and visibility concerns. “She promised that SpaceX engineers are actively working on “testing (solutions), studying them and implementing them. »

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