Dark Skies No More?

Radio telescopes and the Milky Way at night

How Starlink Could Destroy the Magic of the Universe

From the beginnings of human history, presumably as soon as our species stood upright and gazed aloft, we have been enchanted by the inky mystery of the night sky. From the time of the Neo-Babylonian Empire to Ancient Rome and Greece, pinpoints of light have been celebrated, revered, romanticized, and mythologized. And above all, they have been named. The majority of the constellations – clusters of stars – derive their names from Latin, although the origins of their histories are often lost in time. In 1930, the International Astronomical Union assigned official sobriquets – Ursa Major, Orion, Cassiopeia, and Aquila, for instance – to some 88 constellations that pepper the northern and southern heavens. And ‘[w]hether you’re an aspiring astronomer, a keen spiritualist, a nature lover, a child curious about outer space, or simply someone who likes to marvel at twinkling stars – basking in the beauty of our natural world is an experience which everyone, no matter where they are in the world, can enjoy.’ But, asks Under Lucky Stars a company which specializes in star maps, ‘for how much longer?’(1)

No, the stars are not going anywhere but our ability to observe them might be at risk.

Formally announced in 2015, Elon Musk’s SpaceX corporation is currently rolling out the first cohorts of units that will ultimately form part of its Starlink network. With a mission to provide low-cost broadband connections to underserved populations globally, Elon’s Web (as we’ve seen it termed) is composed of a plethora of relatively small satellites weighing between 500lbs and 573lbs that will circle the globe in low Earth orbit (LEO). As of this month, SpaceX has launched 417 units, 60 at a time, and aims to increase that number to 1,584 within 12-24 months. This phase of deployment will allow the company to focus initially on offering internet coverage to North America but, according to an article in CNN Business, the plan is ultimately to construct a network of more than 40,000 satellites to ‘blanket the planet in cheap, high-speed connectivity. The aim is to reach billions of people around the world without internet access and compete with traditional ground-based service providers.’(2)

This network – a ‘mega-constellation’ – is projected to orbit at three different altitudes, or ‘orbital shells.’ The closest set will revolve at 210 miles above the planet, the second circle at around 340 miles high, with the outermost set floating 690 miles above the surface of the Earth. At this time, SpaceX has planned for 12,000 units in orbit but, as recently as this month, the company applied to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to increase the number of authorized satellites in LEO than it had previously been granted.

As we’d expect when it comes to any equipment being put into orbit, the satellites are constructed in a cleanroom environment.

But not only are the finished units strictly controlled but also their constituent parts. Any component vendor associated with the Starlink project must adhere to SpaceX’s guidelines for packaging and transport. All components fall into one of three designations for packaging: Hardware/Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS), Lineside-Ready, or Custom, with detailed packaging specifications for each. Lineside-ready parts should use thermo-formed trays or divided containers as the ‘last level’ of packaging to touch the component and should be suitable to enter a cleanroom environment. To this end all efforts must  be taken to minimize the potential for contamination by Foreign Object Debris (FOD) such as particulate matter. Naturally, this extends not only to the form of the packaging but also to the materials used. Regular retail packaging such as cardboard, paper, foam peanuts et cetera are absolutely unacceptable in a cleanroom environment and only plastics, metal, bubble wrap, and crosslink foam may be used in supplier-developed packaging. Custom packaging – requiring the the highest level of guidance – is reserved for items that are fragile, bulky, high-value, or sensitive to damage. Fortunately for vendors, per the guidelines document ‘SpaceX Engineering and Supply Chain teams will work directly with supplier on a custom packaging solution. SpaceX will procure and deliver all custom packaging to supplier unless otherwise specified.’(3)

According to the Starlink Packaging Specification document issued by SpaceX, all suppliers must ‘should use SpaceX packaging requirements and industry experience to deliver high-quality and undamaged components. [Moreover any modifications,] substitutions or changes to packaging specified on PO should be submitted and approved by a SpaceX employee prior to shipment.’(4) To say the guidelines are ‘stringent’ is perhaps understating the matter.

However, as we’ve discussed in several previous articles, we do have a responsibility to ensure that anything we put into space – whether it remains in orbit or jets over to Mars – should be as free from terrestrial contamination as possible. And when it comes to a single project that may ultimately be comprised of 42,000 separate moving parts, the need for manufacturing hygiene has, arguably, never been greater. And, of course, the stakes have never been higher. According to an article in The Space Review, projects like Starlink ‘should break government owned expensive microwave cell towers and optical fiber-based geographically grounded Internet monopolies, democratizing space communications. [They] will break open human potential, empowering individuals and communities, currently limited by corrupt and incompetent government telecommunication systems in many parts of our globe. Not many of us who already have easy access to the Internet realize that this is not a reality for many remote areas of the world. Connecting the other three billion will be a huge economic benefit to global wealth and equity.’(5)

The power of Starlink is its facility to enable extreme ‘low-latency’ (that is, few delays) in communication for sectors such as finance, transportation, and for national security and military operations. Additionally, as SpaceX has emphasized, the orbital network will aim to connect not only those in remote or ignored communities but also those whose communication is currently dependent upon censorial firewalls deployed by authoritarian agencies. The economic, social, and political benefits seem to evident and unassailable.

But let’s take a look at the project from a different perspective. Elon’s Web, this ‘mega-constellation,’ has the potential to have significant impacts on other human endeavors: deepening our understanding of the universe; understanding how our planet fits into the framework of the broader galaxy; and the investigation of extraterrestrial science and the search for others, unlike ourselves, in the hope that we are not alone. According to many astronomers, the Starlink satellites constitute a major impediment to research. James Lowenthal of Smith College, MA, for instance, has some concerns. A tenured professor with a special research interest in light pollution, Lowenthal highlights the brightness of these objects in the night sky: ‘When SpaceX launched its first set of Starlink satellites, many astronomers were alarmed by how bright the new objects were. In the days following the launch, people across the world spotted the train of satellites, as bright as stars. “I felt as if life as an astronomer and a lover of the night sky would never be the same.”’(6)

Lowenthal’s professorial interests extend to the observation of distant galaxies – large systems of stars held together by gravity – that give us a snapshot into the very history of all matter. Some of the galaxies he researches are ‘so distant that the light we observe from them has been traveling for billions of years, sometimes more than 90% of the age of the Universe. This means we are looking back in cosmic time and seeing the galaxies as they appeared when they were ‘adolescents’ or even ‘babies’, shortly after the Big Bang. Light from such distant galaxies is very faint, and observing them requires using some of the largest telescopes in the world, such as Keck, Hubble, Spitzer, and the LMT.’(7)

Which brings us to another point: the Hubble Space Telescope.

In a wonderfully antiquated photograph dating back to the 1920s, Edwin Hubble is pictured at the Palomar Observatory, CA, peering through a 48-inch telescope. With an intense gaze and his signature smoking pipe clamped in the corner of his mouth, the now legend of space-based astronomy and observational cosmology was engaged in research that yielded not only Hubble’s Law (that ‘recessional velocity’ – that is, the speed at which an object recedes from the observer’s viewpoint – increases with its distance from the Earth, thereby demonstrating the continued expansion of the universe) but also a classification system – the Hubble Sequence – that groups galaxies according to their appearance.

Given Hubble’s prominence and his classification of galaxies from their photographic representation, it is fitting that the world’s first large orbital telescope would come to be named for him. Launched in 1990 as a payload on the space shuttle Discovery, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) ‘was released into orbit, ready to peer into the vast unknown of space, offering a glimpse at distant, exotic cosmic shores yet to be described.’(8) It was the very beginning of a project that would span 30 years (and counting) and reveal images of the universe that have proved transformative in how we conceptualize our universe. ‘Hubble,’ NASA states, ‘is revolutionizing modern astronomy, not only for scientists, but also by taking the public on a wondrous journey of exploration and discovery. Hubble’s never-ending, breathtaking celestial snapshots provide a visual shorthand for Hubble’s top scientific achievements. Unlike any space telescope before it, Hubble made astronomy relevant, engaging and accessible for people of all ages. The space telescope’s iconic imagery has redefined our view of the universe and our place in time and space. […] Unencumbered by Earth’s blurring atmosphere, the space observatory unveils the universe in unprecedented crystal-clear sharpness across a broad range of wavelengths, from ultraviolet to near-infrared light.’(9)

And it is this unique ability – the power to see deep into space without the challenge of light pollution from foreign objects – that has made the HST an ‘astronomy powerhouse.’(10) But will that continue to be the case in view of the mega-constellation of communication satellites envisioned by Musk and the SpaceX team? Ground-based astronomers like Lowenthal are sounding the theoretical alert and others such as Zdenek Bardon have begun to capture images of the growing problem. Highlighted in SpaceWeather.com, a portal of information about the Sun-Earth environment, Bardon’s image illustrates two orthogonal Starlink trains streaking across his photograph. And the amateur astronomer’s frustration is evident: ‘I was trying to photograph disintegrating Comet ATLAS (C2019 Y4). […] My local night sky suffers from light pollution, and stacking of multiple exposures is necessary in order to image the comet. Unfortunately, I had not considered the trajectories of the Starlink satellites, and many of my exposures were contaminated.’(11)

Lowethal and Bardon represent a sort of resistance movement within astronomy circles and are supported by many within the field. As the Independent article notes: ‘An online petition calling for an end to “the irresponsible practice of littering the night sky with bright low-orbit satellites” has gathered more than 1,500 signatures.’(12) The petition, #SaveOurStars, aims to raise awareness of the issue at the same time as sending a message to corporations such as SpaceX that ‘[p]rivate companies cannot treat our sky as their own playground.’(13)

Perhaps these are just ‘teething problems,’ however, with SpaceX already planning ways in which to make the satellite swarms more indistinct. According to an article in the UK’s Independent, Musk is ‘taking some key steps to reduce satellite brightness… [and they should] be much less noticeable during orbit raise by changing solar panel angle and all satellites get sunshades starting with launch nine.’(14) Furthermore, in an attempt to appease a broad swathe of ground-based astronomers, SpaceX has also promised to ‘paint the base of the satellites black. The company is also working with the US National Radio Astronomy Observatory and the European radio astronomy community in order to mitigate any impact on radio astronomy activities.’(15)

Be that as it may, it seems inevitable that there will be an impact of Elon’s Web. Yes, global connectivity will finally be within reach, and the digital divide between those who can leverage the benefits of the cyberworld and those who are excluded from it will cease to exist. However, the dark skies as we know and enjoy them now will also be a phenomenon of the past. The perhaps ephemeral benefits of gazing into the inky night sky, watching for shooting stars or observing constellations, may be lost to us and to future generations, and the question really comes down this: Are the advantages of world-wide internet coverage truly worth the cost – not only to research science but also to the very spirit of man?

We would love to know your thoughts!

References:

  1. https://www.underluckystars.com/
  2. https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/21/tech/starlink-satellites-stargazers-complaints-scli-intl-gbr/index.html
  3. https://admin.spacex.com/sites/spacex/files/spx-00044480_starlink_packaging_specification_v1.0.pdf
  4. ibid
  5. https://www.thespacereview.com/article/3849/1
  6. https://www.businessinsider.com/spacex-starlink-satellites-risks-astronomy-space-junk-2019-11
  7. http://www.science.smith.edu/~jlowenth/research/research.html
  8. https://www.nasa.gov/content/about-the-hubble-story
  9. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/hubble-marks-30-years-in-space-with-tapestry-of-blazing-starbirth/
  10. ibid
  11. https://www.spaceweather.com/archive.php?view=1&day=22&month=04&year=2020
  12. https://www.underluckystars.com/save-our-stars
  13. ibid
  14. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/elon-musk-starlink-satellites-spacex-watch-a9479536.html
  15. ibid

 

 

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