The night sky is saved... for now.
Since SpaceX launched its first cluster of internet-beaming satellites a little over a year ago, astronomers and those concerned with light pollution have watched with unease as the company launched more spacecraft into orbit. Many believe that the constellation of bright satellites flooding the night sky with artificial light will mess up the observation of the Universe for years to come. SpaceX envisions nearly 12,000 of these super bright Starlink satellites orbiting the earth. The luminous spots in the sky would easily pass in front of a telescope and obscure images.
The night sky has possibly been saved, however, as Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, announced major alterations to the programs that could prevent the satellites from polluting our views of the heavens and hindering astronomy. The first effort to dim the satellites came in January when SpaceX used an experimental coating to darken the satellites’ reflectivity; the coating only slightly darkened the satellite. Now, SpaceX will alter the orientation of the satellites in an attempt to save the night sky.
By making the solar panels edge-on relative to Earth, each satellite’s reflection will be radically decreased during initial deployment, when they’re brightest. In addition, SpaceX plans on deploying a shield, like an umbrella, to block the sunlight from hitting the highly reflective satellites. While these changes make the satellites hard to see with the bare eye, the changes primarily address the concern of future advanced astronomical research, as many astronomers had worried that the satellites would interfere with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, a telescope in Chile that will scan the entire sky every three nights when it begins to fully operate in 2023. The telescope would allow scientists to hunt for exploding stars or near-Earth asteroids and send the information to every major ground and space-based observatory within 60 seconds so that the entire astronomical community can follow up. Any threat to the Rubin observatory, such as Starlink satellites will, therefore, affect the entire field of astronomy.
Anthony Tyson, a physicist at the University of California, Davis, and the chief scientist of the Rubin Observatory and his colleagues have developed an extensive algorithm that removes faint satellites from the telescope images. With the added umbrella shields, Tyson is hopeful that Starlink satellites will no longer interfere with astronomy.
However, as the more satellites launch, they will swarm the skies especially surrounding twilight and dawn. This could potentially be a recipe for disaster, as those times are precisely when astronomers search for Earth-threatening asteroids.