‘Tragedy’ of the night sky in Starlink’s satellite race

Starlink’s satellites are being hailed as a way to revolutionise communication across the globe, but many astronomers have a much dimmer view.

Since 2018, when its first was launched, Starlink has sent 1700 satellites into Earth’s low orbit.

Demand for the program is driven by our desire for high-speed internet and global communications. The ever-growing ring of satellites aims to produce an internet service that can provide a connection for people all the way from space.

Starlink’s program has been a winner with the world’s telecommunications companies. One of the latest is Optus, which just this week signed a deal with the Elon Musk-owned company that will allow it to deliver voice calls, data and SMS messages within two years to parts of Australia that currently have no coverage.

“This is a truly innovative model for Australia – connecting satellites to standard mobile phones – and a significant evolution beyond the services SpaceX has provided in Australia to date,” Optus marketing and revenue managing director Matt Williams said.

Mr Musk and Starlink plan to launch another 30,000 satellites within the next decade, making a mega-constellation and broadening the reach of global communications.

OneWeb and Amazon are also planning to launch their own brigade of satellites into orbit.

But astronomers are much less enthused.

A study in the July issue of journal Astronomy & Astrophysics  shed light on the issues around these low-Earth orbit satellites. It found that unless strict guidelines are imposed, some astronomical observations may become impossible in coming years because of the artificial sphere of “radio light” created by the network.

Why this is an issue

Researchers fear the increasing infiltration of space junk will become a major obstruction in their attempts to further their knowledge of the universe.

This is because the radio waves astronomers use for research are inhibited by transmissions from the satellites.

The Astronomy & Astrophysics study noted that 68 of SpaceX’s satellites were producing emissions that had drifted out of their allocated band and leaked into space.

A paper published in Nature Astronomy further emphasised the damage to the night sky from satellites.

“We are witnessing a dramatic, fundamental and perhaps semi-permanent transformation of the night sky without historical precedent and with limited oversight,” it said.

Steven Freeland, an international law expert, told the ABC he estimated as many as 500,000 more objects would be rocketed in space in the coming decade. That kind of escalation raises major concerns about the lack of regulation to protect our skies.

Another study revealed that the night sky became 10 per cent brighter every year from 2011 to 2022. If that trend continues, observatories conducting vital research face a genuine risk of becoming obsolete.

The International Astronomical Union is particularly concerned about the rush of satellite launches. It “embraces the principle of a dark and radio-quiet sky” as essential to advance our understanding of the universe, as well as to protect life on Earth.

“Interference of our view of the sky caused by ground-based artificial lights, optical and infrared trails of satellite constellations and radio transmission on the ground and in space is an existential threat to astronomical observations,” head Debra Elmegreen has written.

How this affects Australia

The skies in parts of rural Australia are among the least light-polluted among G20 countries.

Light pollution is inappropriate or excessive artificial light at night. Too much of it can interfere with life for many nocturnal species.

It also makes it hard to see the stars above us.

The task of preserving Australia’s dark skies falls to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. It has teamed up with the Australasian Dark Sky Alliance, a group that educates people and policymakers about night environment conservation.

Elsewhere, the International Dark Sky Association is a US-based non-profit group that works to protect the night skies for present and future generations.

Its International Dark Sky Places program lists more than 200 sites worldwide where the night sky is protected to enhance visibility, as well as boost tourism and economic opportunities. Australia is home to three.

  1. Warrumbungle National Park (NSW)

  2. River Murray Dark Sky Reserve (South Australia)

  3. Australian Age of Dinosaurs – The Jump-Up (Queensland)

Acceptance into the program is akin to a landmark receiving world heritage status.

Four years ago, with the first of Starlink’s low-Earth orbit satellites launched, Dave Clements, an astrophysicist from Imperial College London, warned of the risks.

“The night sky is a commons – and what we have here is a tragedy of the commons,” he told the BBC.

Dr Clements said the ever-burgeoning ring of satellites worked as a foreground between what scientists observing from Earth and the rest of the universe.

“They get in the way of everything,” he said.

“You’ll miss whatever is behind them, whether that’s a nearby potentially hazardous asteroid or the most distant quasar (galactic nucleus) in the universe,” he said.

The continued protection of dark skies is also vital to Australia’s Indigenous people. Constellations such as the Emu in the Sky and the Seven Sisters are vital to their way of life.

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