With more than 2,000 Starlink satellites currently in orbit, the Starlink mega-constellation is already disrupting astronomical imaging and cutting into orbits of neighbouring space assets.
The most recent launch of another fleet of 49 Starlink satellites on January 18, 2022, has the total number of Starlink satellites currently in orbit spanning beyond 2,000. This modest figure makes up only a small portion of SpaceX’s hyper-ambitious plans to expand the Internet satellite network to up to a whopping 42,000 — all in the name of providing low-cost Internet service to remote areas of our planet.
Now, this may seem futuristic, exciting and almost idealistic for avid technophiles who are passionate about orbital infrastructure. However, a sense of growing worry has unsettled the astronomical and science community lately; disturbed by the possible cost the Internet service may come at.
For a start, the train of Starlink satellites decorate our night skies as they move along in low Earth orbit. This means that the satellites are distinctly visible to the naked eye. Not only does this pose a problem to space enthusiasts who may just want to peacefully camp under distant stars and neighbouring planets with their telescopes, but also to astronomers who are dedicated to studying outer space.
The luminosity of the satellites outshines the brightness of faraway cosmic objects, preventing undisturbed observation of the night sky and accurate readings of astronomical data and imaging. Despite SpaceX’s attempts to mitigate the issue with black-coloured, anti-reflective DarkSat and VisorSats with deployable visors to shade the antennae from sunlight, the effort has yet to pay off. Scientists still deal with satellite streaks in telescope imagery, giving rise to concerns over the future of space observations.
According to Hugh Lewis, the head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton, the Starlink satellites pose as the main reason for the possibility of collision in low Earth orbit. With the continuously increasing number of Starlink satellites, the risk of collision only grows larger, impacting the operations in low Earth orbit.
We cannot not talk about satellites without the mention of deorbiting and space junk. In the case of the Starlink constellation, SpaceX has plans to deorbit old satellites at the end of their lifetime by thrusting them into lower orbit to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. As commendable it may seem, this plan is yet to be performed in reality. In a worst-case scenario, Starlink satellites that have collided or malfunctioned to not deorbit as per plan could contribute heavily to the problem of space junk.
On the other hand, if the deorbital procedure for each satellite goes according to plan, it poses yet another issue for our Earth’s environment. The vast amount of satellites burning up in our atmosphere could lead to environmental undesirable consequences and changes to our atmosphere and subsequently, life on Earth.
Canadian researcher, Aaron Boley, noted that aluminium oxide, a byproduct of the satellites burning up in the atmosphere, could further propel the depletion of our ozone layer and alter Earth’s climate balance.
In the end, one question remains — whether the affordable and accessible Internet from space is worth giving up our unobstructed view of the cosmos. From Galileo Galilei to Carl Sagan, the stars and planets above have changed the lives of thousands and inspired many more over millennia. Regardless of cool technological advancements and fancy space infrastructure in the current and in the decades ahead, we should not lose sight of humankind’s fundamental source of inspiration — the star-studded night sky.