Soon, the night sky could be blanketed by an immense array of satellites streaking through the dark. These satellites would comprise Starlink, a satellite mega-constellation envisioned to provide global high-speed internet access.
There are 480 Starlink satellites currently in orbit around the Earth—60 of which are from the latest launch in early June. SpaceX, the American aerospace company behind the ambitious project, has already obtained clearance from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 12,000 of these into orbit, with an additional 30,000 under consideration by the International Telecommunication Union. If everything pans out, Starlink could single-handedly multiply the number of active orbiting satellites by a factor of four or even 14. This gargantuan task, however, is perhaps not as promising as its premise initially seems.
When you wish upon a satellite
For many astronomers, be they professionals or hobbyists, the issue with a satellite constellation as large as Starlink is the cumulative brightness from each individual satellite. As Dr. Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics explains in an interview with The LaSallian, “The reason they’re bright as seen from the Earth is that they’re both large—as satellites go—and in a very low orbit.” This unusual combination, he expounds, makes the satellites visible to the naked eye. While that might be interesting to the casual observer, for researchers like him, “It’s a pain in the neck.”
Unlike Starlink, distant astronomical objects are very dim, and as such require long exposures to be properly observed. “If any Starlink satellite happens to cross [what we are observing], what it’ll do is that it’ll just leave a streak going right across the whole image,” McDowell explains when asked about how the satellites could affect his own work in the future.
He furthers, “When it gets to a point where every Astronomy picture has a satellite going across it, then that really impacts our operations…It could make our jobs significantly harder if these satellites are bright and ubiquitous.”
While astronomers do have tools to correct for stray satellites, he worries that without interventions, Starlink could push them beyond viability—incurring extra expenses and prolonged telescope time. “You could get to the point where the mitigation techniques aren’t possible, and so there needs to be some kind of discussion about how the light pollution from satellites gets regulated,” he relays.
On the other hand, SpaceX has responded to astronomers’ gripes by implementing a special non-reflective coating on a single satellite dubbed DarkSat. McDowell discerns that that coating is “not enough” but is a start. “I think it’s great that they’ve made that step, but for professional astronomers, there’s still a ways to go before it doesn’t bother us,” he comments.
Marooned on spaceship Earth
The recent Starlink launches have also elevated concerns on whether the satellite constellation could be a precursor to a scenario known as the Kessler Syndrome, theorized by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientist Donald Kessler in 1978, wherein a chain reaction of satellite collisions could cause an accumulation of space debris. The debris, in turn, would overwhelm orbital space and render low Earth orbit (LEO)—a region of space 160 to 2,000 kilometers (km) above the Earth’s surface—unusable for years.
McDowell affirms that the possibility of the Kessler Syndrome is a real concern and goes further into detail about the levels that lead up to it. The more well-known level, called the Kessler cascade, involves big satellites colliding to create a chain reaction of debris. On the other hand, the ablation cascade level is likewise caused by a chain reaction of debris, the astrophysicist explains, but with “tiny little pieces that don’t destroy a whole satellite but maybe chip off four more little pieces.”
Both levels are underway at a slow rate, McDowell reveals, elaborating that if space debris accumulates at an increasing pace at the low orbit region, scientists have to wait approximately 10 years for the debris to re-enter the atmosphere and burn up. At higher orbits, though, the time period for space debris to re-enter the atmosphere increases, and so does the cause for concern.
To mitigate these, McDowell shares that for the past 30 years, space agencies have set debris remediation measures in place to reduce orbital debris, which include nonfunctional spacecrafts, abandoned launch vehicle parts, mission-related debris, and fragmentation debris produced from deteriorated spacecraft. Recently, a new initiative known as Active Debris Removal, currently in the experimental stage, is also being explored. According to McDowell, the initiative aims to utilize “space garbage truck satellites” to capture and remove targeted satellites from orbit.
On the bleeding edge
Given all of this, it would be easy to assume that regulatory bodies have things under control, or at least have plans to establish it. Reality tells a different story. “Commercial space is evolving at a much faster rate than space regulation. The regulators can’t keep up,” McDowell comments. Emphasizing the need for governments to respond, he calls on agencies such as the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration to look into the current issues and make the necessary assessments.
At present, there is no international law sufficient to tackle the current issues of satellites polluting the upper skies of the planet. Formed by an international body of experts making recommendations to individual countries, and requiring consensus from participating states, international laws tend to merely serve as guidelines. An individual nation still has to ratify these international agreements as official legislation.
International laws were the chief reason why spacefaring powers such as the United States, Europe, and China have a similar regulation on limiting LEO satellites. This specific rule requires satellites to re-enter the atmosphere after 25 years. While it was a reasonable working rule back in the early 90s, it is no longer sufficient due to the escalation of activity in space, especially in LEO, thus the pressing need for new and appropriate regulations.
“It’s not clear what that rule is going to be, but there is a general agreement that we need to move to a more aggressive rule about not leaving your junk in Earth orbit,” McDowell points out.
Much time for caution
Whether Starlink proves to be an irreparable nuisance or the next great leap in telecommunications is still up for debate. While SpaceX has initiated measures to minimize the negative impact that the mega-constellation can incur, these are yet to be sufficient in their current state. What remains clear, however, is that the waters that Starlink is bound to tread offer little escape in the event that things go south. We are in the makings of something great, but sooner or later we must decide if global high-speed internet is the end for which we clamor to excise requisite cautions from the means.