SpaceX's next-gen Starlink satellites will be 'invisible to the naked eye'

An alternative to installing a 'sun visor' on its satellites.
Chris Young
Long exposure of the Crew-2 launch.
Long exposure of the Crew-2 launch.Daniel Hull/iStock
  • SpaceX's new Starlink upgrades could make the satellites "invisible to the naked eye."
  • The move comes after astronomical organizations organized over the impact of mega-constellations.
  • One organization welcomed the move, calling it an example of "corporate good citizenship."

SpaceX announced new upgrades to its Starlink 2.0 satellites that it says will reduce interference for the global astronomical community.

The upgrades address the way in which Starlink satellites reflect sunlight as they orbit the Earth. If they are as efficient as SpaceX claims, they will make Starlink satellites "invisible to the naked eye when at their standard operational altitude."

The news comes after concerted efforts by the global astronomical community to fight the impact of satellite mega-constellations on their work.

SpaceX collaborates with the astronomical community

Starlink's satellites have had an adverse effect on the global astronomical community. As Samantha Lawler, an astronomer at the University of Regina in Canada, told IE in a recent interview, "we're able to do less science with the same amount of time, and our time is all taxpayer-funded."

"So it's a higher cost to taxpayers for the same amount of science because of the actions of a private company," Lawler, who led a recent investigation on the topic, added.

Now, SpaceX has released a public document outlining new measures it will take to reduce the internet satellite's impact on the astronomical community. The new measures are especially important given the context that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently announced the company expects "over 4,200 Starlink satellites in operation within 18 months", constituting two-thirds of all active satellites. Roughly 2,300 Starlink satellites are currently in orbit, and SpaceX has approval for 30,000 more.

In its new document, SpaceX details how it has been working with astronomers to develop new elements that reduce the amount of sunlight reflected back at Earth by Starlink satellites. According to the private space firm, Starlink satellites are most visible in the first few hours after dusk, which is when a lot of astronomical work on comets and near-Earth asteroids takes place. In fact, NASA has warned that Starlink satellites could impede its ability to detect a potentially hazardous asteroid headed towards Earth.

SpaceX has previously tried installing a "sun visor" on its satellites. However, the company now says these visors, which block the Sun's rays, can also block laser links on Starlink. They also generate too much atmospheric drag, which requires the satellites to use more fuel to maintain their orbits.

SpaceX's next-gen Starlink satellites will be 'invisible to the naked eye'
A time-lapse image of comet Neowise with Starlink streaks taken in 2020.
El Cielo de Canarias/Diego Lopez

As an alternative, SpaceX has devised a mirror film on the satellites. This scatters most of the reflected sunlight away, meaning it will be less concentrated and less visible from Earth. SpaceX says the new film for its Starlink 2.0 satellites will reduce the reflection brightness by over ten times compared to a version it's using on its current-gen satellites.

SpaceX also says it will use darker materials on its satellites to make the surface less reflective. The company said it will now start using a "dark red" pigmentation instead of a white material on the satellite's solar cells. For Starlink 2.0, it will use a "low reflectivity black" color paint over components that can't be covered by its mirror film.

Finally, SpaceX also explains it will point its Starlink 2.0 solar arrays away from the Sun during specific times of the day. Specifically during the "terminator boundary", around dusk, they will point their solar arrays away so that the satellites reflect less light towards Earth. "This off-pointing maneuver results in a 25 percent reduction in available power for the satellites," the company wrote in its document. "Despite this cost, SpaceX has specifically designed the second-generation satellites to be able to accommodate this significant power reduction."

SpaceX will also work with other satellite firms

Crucially, SpaceX says these measures will make Starlink satellites "invisible to the naked eye when at their standard operational altitude." It is worth noting that the company says it's still working on reflection mitigation methods for satellites that have recently entered orbit.

Of course, SpaceX isn't the only company aiming to send hundreds, or thousands, of new internet satellites into orbit. Amazon, for example, recently penned a massive 83-launch contract to send its own in-development Project Kuiper satellites into orbit. To this end, SpaceX says it will sell its new mirror film technology to third-party operators. It remains to be seen, however, whether SpaceX will collaborate with direct competitors like Amazon. It also remains to be seen exactly how effective these new measures are in practice. In theory, though, it looks like a positive step that could help SpaceX and the astronomical community coexist in harmony.

In fact, the International Astronomical Union's Centre for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference (IAU CPS), which organized to fight Starlink and other mega-constellations, approves. The organization wrote in a new statement that this is "a real demonstration of corporate good citizenship, representing a significant investment of engineering resources" on SpaceX's part.

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