SpaceX working with astronomers to lessen impacts of Starlink satellites

Starlink launch cadence expected to pick up this year amid plans to create space-based internet

SpaceX started the year with a night liftoff Monday, sending another round of 60 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit as part of the company’s plan to create a space-based internet using thousands of spacecraft.

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – SpaceX started the year with a night liftoff Monday, launching another round of 60 Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit, but this time the company worked to lessen the impact of the satellites on the view of the night sky after astronomers voiced concerned.

Inside the rocket’s nose cone was 60 Starlink satellites, which will increase the total of Starlink satellites in space to 180. This launch puts SpaceX as the No. 2 company with the most active satellites in orbit, just after Planet Lab, reports News 6 partner Florida Today.

SpaceX is planning to eventually launch thousands of satellites to create a space-based global internet. It has two more Starlink satellite launches planned for the first part of 2020.

“Starlink will provide fast, reliable internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable,” according to SpaceX.

Astronomers have been vocal with their concerns about the sheer number of satellites and the impact the project will have on scientific observations of the sky.

In May, after another round of Starlink satellite launched, astronomers shared images of the reflection of dozens of satellites passing in the night sky.

Ahead of Monday’s launch, SpaceX made several changes that company officials hope will make the satellites less visible from Earth.

On this flight, the company is testing an experimental darkening treatment on one satellite to reduce its light reflection.

Ahead of the launch, SpaceX provided leading astronomy groups with data “so astronomers can better coordinate their observations with the satellites,” according to the Starlink mission overview. The data provided by SpaceX can be used with satellite-tracking software.

However, SpaceX isn’t the only company planning to send hundreds of spacecraft into orbit to create a global internet. Satellite manufacturer OneWeb and Amazon also have plans to create space-based internet service using swarms of satellites. OneWeb has a second round of internet satellites it’s planning to launch later this year.

Seminole State College Planetarium director and astronomer Derek Demeter said the changes SpaceX made are a step in the right direction.

He said he’s glad to see communication between the company and the astronomy community are open now, however, he thinks it’s because people made their concerns known and should continue to voice them.

“I think space today is kind of like how we thought of the environment when we were building agricultural sites and stuff like in the Everglades, and I think we’re now at that point where we’re polluting the sky now," Demeter said.

There are two primary concerns astronomers have about the growing number of satellites. The first is the albedo, or brightness, produced by satellites. This light will be a problem for astronomers doing research that requires ground-based telescope sweeps of the sky searching for objects such as asteroids that could impact Earth. Researchers can remove the satellites from the data if they know where they are but then you are losing data for your research, Demeter said.

“If we can’t do our job and observe these asteroids that’s not a good thing,” Demeter said of tracking asteroids.

The second concern is for radio astronomy, which is a science that studies space objects through radio waves.

“Imagine having a big flashlight shining in front of your face as it passes by,” Demeter said of the satellite obstruction.

SpaceX has proposed creating “no operation zones” to turn off the satellite frequency as they pass ground-based observatories but it’s unclear if that will happen soon, Demeter said.

It’s possible to preserve the beauty of the night sky and advance technology if the astronomy, engineer and spaceflight communities work together, Demeter said.

“At the end of the day, we can, by working together, do both, we can preserve the sky, but we can also provide a better tomorrow for people here on Earth,” Demeter said.

Launch details

Rocket: Falcon 9

Payload: 60 Starlink satellites

Launch window: Jan 6 from 9:09-9:29 p.m.

Launch forecast: More than 90% Go

Landing: Droneship landing on Of Course I Still Love You about eight minutes after launch.