Amazon Satellites Add to Astronomers’ Worries About the Night Sky


Welcome to the age of the satellite megaconstellation. Within the next few years, vast networks, containing hundreds or even thousands of spacecraft, could reshape the future of Earth’s orbital environment.

Much of the attention on these strings of satellites has been placed on the prolific launches of SpaceX and OneWeb, but the focus is now turning to Amazon. Last month, the Federal Communications Commission approved a request by the online marketplace to launch its Project Kuiper constellation, which, like SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb’s network, aims to extend high-speed internet service to customers around the world, including to remote or underserved communities hobbled by a persistent digital divide.

The Kuiper constellation would consist of 3,236 satellites. That’s more than the approximately 2,600 active satellites already orbiting Earth. While Amazon’s hardware is a long way from the launchpad, SpaceX has already deployed hundreds of satellites in its Starlink constellation, including 57 additional satellites that it launched on Friday. It may expand it to 12,000, or more. Facebook and Telesat could also get into the internet constellation business.

The rapid influx of satellites into low-Earth orbit has prompted pushback from professional and amateur astronomers. Starlink satellites are notorious for “photobombing” astronomical images with bright streaks, damaging the quality and reducing the volume of data that scientists collect for research. While SpaceX plans to mitigate the effects of its launches on astronomical observations, scientists and hobbyists in the community worry about the lack of regulation of constellations as more entrants such as Project Kuiper join the action.

“We don’t yet have any kind of industrywide guidelines,” said Michele Bannister, a planetary astronomer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “We don’t have an industry body that’s producing good corporate citizenship on the part of all of these enthusiastic companies that want to launch, and we don’t have any regulatory setup in place that’s providing clear guidelines back to the industry.”

She added, “To me, honestly, it feels like putting a bunch of planes up and then not having air traffic control.”

Since the first group of Starlink satellites launched in May 2019, many skywatchers have lamented their bright reflected glare. The light pollution is particularly pronounced when the satellites are freshly deployed and headed toward their operational orbits. At this point, they are perfectly positioned to catch sunlight at dawn and dusk, scuttling astrophotos and telescope observations. Starlink must be replenished constantly with new satellites, so these trails will be an ongoing problem.

“Most ground-based observatories actually start in twilight,” said Julien H. Girard, a support scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “We start taking data even when the sky is not completely dark, especially in the near-infrared and infrared wavelengths.”

The satellites may create the most problems for wide-field observatories that survey expansive regions of the night sky at once. The motion of satellites through the frame can obstruct observational targets or overwhelm them with light. Astronomers can use software to remove satellite trails to some extent, but that may not completely fix the images.

“There’s no doubt that the astronomical community can still do science with the presence of those constellations, but it’s a burden,” Dr. Girard said.

While these concerns have been raised, there is no other obvious way to stop, or slow, the development of these megaconstellations.

“One of the things that I think is most problematic is that there isn’t any legal prevention, or legal protection, for the night skies,” said Chris Newman, professor of space law and policy at Northumbria University in the United Kingdom.

With hundreds of Starlink and OneWeb satellites already launched, and thousands more expected in the next few years, astronomers feel mounting pressure to find a workable compromise with the companies. Decisions made now may affect the sky for decades.

“Reflectivity is a key consideration in our design and development process, and we’re engaging with members of the astronomy community to better understand their concerns and identify steps we can take to minimize our impact,” an Amazon spokesman said. “We’ll have more to share as we release additional detail on our plans for the project.”

But many astronomers, and dark-sky advocates, are seeking a robust regulatory approach to these issues.

“I think the only real way in which, going forward, this is going to develop, is if national regulators make it part of the licensing requirement that satellite companies putting constellations up take into account the needs of ground-based astronomy,” Dr. Newman said. “I think that’s very possible, and I don’t think that would require too much accommodation by companies.”

Of course, the night sky is not only a resource for professional astronomers. Across generations and cultures, people have gazed up after sunset to seek solace, enchantment and perspective from the stars. Broadening internet access around the world has an obvious public benefit, but so does the preservation of clear skies and bright stars.

“We’re talking about changing something that is shared across the entire planet,” Dr. Bannister said.

“This is environmental impact,” she added. “This is something we know how to discuss and regulate in all the other spheres of corporate activity. Why should this be any different?”



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