Astronomers are organizing against the 'unsustainable' Starlink problem

'We all share the sky.'
Chris Young
3D render of waste from broken artificial satelliteEvgeniyShkolenko/iStock

Earlier this year, NASA warned that SpaceX's Starlink mega-constellation could impede "our planet's ability to detect and possibly redirect a potentially catastrophic impact" from a near-Earth asteroid.

It's hard to think of a more dire consequence of the rise of satellite mega-constellations than human extinction.

But there's also the Kessler Effect — where a satellite or other object impacts another one and breaks into small pieces, which then impact with other satellites, breaking them up, and so on until Earth's orbit is crowded with shiny bullet-like shards of space debris.

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"It's my sincere hope that the work my colleagues and I are doing today will enable the next generation of astronomers to not spend so much time on this pernicious problem," Meredith Rawls, Ph.D., an astronomer at the University of Washington, told IE in an interview.

Organizing against satellite mega-constellation providers

Rawls recently published an article in the journal Nature titled 'The Case for Space Environmentalism', and she is part of the newly-formed International Astronomical Union Centre for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference (IAU CPS). IAU CPS is an organization that aims to minimize and mitigate the impact of mega-constellations and protect the dark and quiet skies.

Rawls explained that the IAU CPS has four hubs, allowing it to tackle the situation from multiple angles. These are an observation and data analysis hub called SatHub that Rawls co-leads, a Policy hub, a Tech and Industry hub, and a Community Engagement hub.

"[We have to] iterate with operators on darkening mitigation designs, yes," Rawls explained, "But also propose concrete policy solutions at multiple levels of jurisdiction, advocate for open data standards for operators sharing orbital solution data, build new software tools to help observers avoid and/or mask satellites, and engage communities who are just becoming aware of the issue."

Ultimately though, a lot of responsibility lies with the likes of SpaceX and also companies like Amazon, which just penned a major contract for 83 launches for its upcoming Project Kuiper internet satellite system, which will be comprised of a network of 3,236 satellites when it is fully deployed.

"At the end of the day, though, the only fully effective mitigation is to launch fewer satellites," she said. "Because we all share the sky, I think it's essential to broaden the conversation to include much more than just astronomers and satellite companies, to find creative ways to deter unilateral actions."

In fact, Rawls highlighted the fact that SpaceX's Starlink is not the only offender and that the problem will become vastly more urgent in the coming years. "If SpaceX were the only company poised to launch (tens of!) thousands of satellites, we'd be staring down a very different situation," she said. "As it is, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg."

That's because filings with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the International Communication Union (ITU) suggest dozens of satellite operators worldwide have plans to launch as many as 100,000 commercial low-Earth-orbit satellites by 2030. 

"Astronomers could conceivably collaborate one-on-one with a couple companies who are willing to limit the size of their constellations and try various darkening mitigations, but that approach doesn't scale to a burgeoning new industry in a world with no regulations on number or brightness of satellites," Rawls explained. "There's also no consideration of cumulative effects when, say, 50 satellites are launched, but it's toward a larger goal of 50,000. Those are my real sustainability concerns."

Astronomers discuss the worst-case Starlink scenario

Rawls and other concerned astronomers have, of course, investigated the worst possible outcomes of unchecked satellite mega-constellation launches over the next decade. The University of Washington astronomer explained that, based on her findings, she worries we may "slowly lose a significant fraction of our ability to observe the sky in all wavelengths, from radio to visible light."

"When you go outside at night, instead of seeing familiar constellations of twinkling stars, you see a network of satellites sweeping every which way across the sky, and our kids grow up thinking this is normal," she continued.

This mirrors the sentiment of the University of Regina's Samantha Lawler, who also recently spoke to IE. Lawler said it will be "horrible" to see the moving grids of satellites slowly crowd the night skies in the coming years.

Much like Rawls, Lawler is working hard to get the message out there, though there's a degree of helplessness in the face of massive corporations like SpaceX and Amazon. Lawler suggested concerned customers make their feelings known to these companies: "If consumers tell SpaceX to prioritize protecting the night sky, maybe they'll listen," Lawler told IE. "They have incredible engineers on their team, and the situation can definitely still be improved with better engineering."

Rawls agreed that Starlink and other satellite providers' current launch cadence is "unsustainable" and explained that other worst-case scenarios involve near-Earth objects colliding with Earth because "we literally can't see them", as well as major observatories having to run for years longer to meet survey goals due to the congested skies.

"Precision radio astronomy is a distant memory. We can no longer launch new telescopes into space due to orbital crowding," she said. Amazing discoveries could go unseen and, even more urgently, potentially hazardous space rocks could go unnoticed — until it's too late.

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