Last month, SpaceX successfully launched 60 500-pound satellites into space. Soon, amateur celestial observers began to exchange images of these satellites in the night sky, causing a riot among astronomers who feared that the planned orbiting cluster would devastate scientific research and destroy our view of the cosmos.
The main problem is that these 60 satellites are just a drop in the bucket. SpaceX is planning to launch thousands of satellites – a mega constellation of fake stars called Starlink that connects the planet to the Internet, and a new industry for the private space company.
"This has the potential to alter what a natural sky looks like," said Tyler Nordgren, an astronomer who now Full time works to promote night sky.
And SpaceX is not alone. Other companies such as Amazon, Telesat and OneWeb want to enter the space Internet business. Their ambitions to make satellites almost as numerous as mobile phone towers underscore controversial debates as old as the space age about the proper use of the final frontier.
While private companies see great opportunities in near-Earth orbit and beyond, many sky-gazers fear that space will no longer be "the province of all humanity," as stated in the 1967 Space Treaty.
The Starlink launch was one of the most ambitious of SpaceX missions into orbit.
Each of the satellites carries a solar panel that not only collects sunlight, but also reflects it to Earth. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, has assured that the satellites will be visible only in the hours after sunset and before sunrise and then only barely visible.
The early pictures, however, led many scientists to question his claims.
For example, the first pictures taken showed a spacecraft train as bright as Polaris the North Star. And while a SpaceX spokesman said the satellites are weakening as they move on higher orbits, some astronomers estimate that they will be visible to the naked eye during the summer nights .
When a satellite travels through a long-exposure image of the sky, it causes a long bright streak – usually destroying the image and forcing astronomers to take another. While telecom operators have been addressing these issues for years, Starlink alone could triple the number of satellites currently in orbit.
According to an estimate, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope is an 8.4-inch telescope telescope under construction on a Chilean mountain peak that will soon scan the entire sky – could be up to during the first hours of dusk have four Starlink satellites in each picture .
And astronomers do not know yet how to adapt. "We are really at the point where we need to assess what we will do," said Ronald Drimmel, astronomer at the Astrophysical Observatory of Turin in Italy.
These satellites not only reflect light, they also emit light from radio frequencies – causing concern for a number of astronomers. Courts used in radio astronomy are often placed in remote locations away from cell towers and radio stations. However, when Starlink is fully launched – with the ability to beam reception anywhere in the world – these so-called radio silence zones could be a thing of the past.
In addition, some are worried that Starlink intends to work on two frequency ranges that astronomers use to map the gas throughout the universe – so they can see how Jupiter-sized planets are made up and how they feel right after the Big Bang Form galaxies.
"When these frequency channels are no longer accessible, this is extremely limiting to what we can learn about the early universe," said Caitlin Casey, an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin.
Similar concerns arose in the 1990s when Iridium launched dozens of satellites – their own lightning-induced night skies – for worldwide coverage via satellite phones. The influence of the iridium constellation was ultimately minimal as the technologies changed and because it never became larger than 66 satellites. The most reflective of its satellites is now leaving the orbit.
The National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a government-funded research center that operates facilities around the world, announced in a statement Friday that it has worked directly with SpaceX to achieve minimization of potential impact. The group discusses what they call restricted zones around some radio astronomy facilities in which the SpaceX satellites would be shut down during the overflight.
Dr. Casey fears that this may limit the work of radio astronomers.
This week, Mr. Musk said on Twitter that Starlink would avoid using either frequency range. Dr. However, Casey said it is possible that the neighboring frequencies used by the satellites will flow into areas that astronomers investigate – even if they are technically blocked.
Despite the outcry, Dr. Drimmel that he did not call for Starlink to stall.
"I do not think astronomy should be more important than anything else," he said. "So there can be give and take and compromises that need to be made."
But he worries about the irrevocable impact on human culture if Internet satellites forever change the face of the night sky.
I find it amazing that everything we do affects everyone on the planet, "Dr. Drimmel.
Alex Parker, a planetary astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute, noted on Twitter that these satellites, if in orbit by the thousands, could soon outweigh [all] visible to the naked eye . And even if only 500 can be observed at any one time Drimmel, that it will be difficult to recognize constellations under these moving lights.
"It sounds dystopian." Casey said.
The biggest frustration stems from the fact that discussions about the implications of this project did not take place before the launch. And it can only be the beginning.
"It really is the tip of the iceberg, especially since we are entering a world in which you have multi-billion with the ability and desire to do such things," Dr. Nordgren.
So astronomers are confident that today's conversation could shape the future. "I think it's good that we're making a noise because of this problem," Dr. Drimmel. "If we are unaware of the threat so to speak, this will all happen as planned and then it will be too late.
Already Mr. Musk has asked SpaceX to reduce the Brightness of future satellites to work.
And other companies do not seem to accept this. e.A press spokesman for Amazon said that it will take years to Project Kuiper – the company's plan to have more than 3,000 Internet satellites But Amazon will be evaluating space security and concerns over light pollution in the development of its satellites, the press officer said.
Another participant, Telesat, said his smaller constellation would operate in higher orbits as the satellites of some companies, which would make their satellites weaker.
Mr. Musk also angered some astronomers, as he said on Twitter that Starlink was for the "greater good".
"Who has the right to decide?" Nordgren. "And are we all agreed that this compromise is one to which we are all ready?"
The night sky has the power to impress people, he said.
"A Starry Night Heaven reminds us that we are part of a much larger whole, that we are a person in a world of people surrounded by the vast depths of the visible universe," said Dr. Nordgren.
Even if they consider the goal of Starlink to be worthy Scientists ask if it really is the greater good.
"I'm sure there will be a positive impact on the spread of the Internet in the world, but say as a person or a company that this takes precedence over ours The knowledge of our own universe is scary, "said Dr. Casey.
Ultimately, many agree that the risks are far too great for that This decision could be made by a company, and Dr. Casey is confident that SpaceX will pursue a collaborative approach with major astronomy organizations.
"The Vorstellu ng that one or two people somewhere in a country in a boardroom can make the decision that the constellations will suddenly become fluent and move from night to night and hour to hour – I do not think this is their decision ", said Dr. Nordgren.