I think music is about our internal life. It’s part of the way people touch each other. That’s very precious to me. And astronomy is, in a sense, the very opposite thing. Instead of looking inwards, you are looking out, to things beyond our grasp.Brian May
There is a lot of aggressive debate related to SpaceX and how it is harming astronomy by launching thousands of small LEO satellites into orbit effectively obstructing the view of deep space.
Starlink, a “megaconstellation” of a planned 12,000 of Internet satellites launched by the aerospace company SpaceX, has been causing headaches for astronomers by outshining celestial objects. Starlink has applied for another 30,000 satellites to reach a potential total number of satellites launched to 42,000. Some of the megaconstellation of satellites have already burned up and de-orbited. Set to eventually include tens of thousands of spacecraft beaming high-speed Internet to the entire planet, Starlink has a downside for stargazing: the satellites reflect enough sunlight at night to be seen clearly with the naked eye (not to mention sensitive telescopes). Their brightness is only accentuated by the long trains they are arranged in, which pass across the heavens like dozens of glowing beads on a celestial string.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Astronomical Society (AAS) released a report on the situation. It drew from discussions among more than 250 experts at the virtual Satellite Constellations 1 (SATCON1) workshop in the summer of 2020 to provide recommendations for both astronomers and satellite constellation operators in order to minimize further disruptions.
It turns out, some astronomers have reason to be concerned. Certain types of astronomy may be more negatively affected than others, one peer-reviewed study shows, particularly those kinds that scour large swaths of the sky over long periods of time looking for faint, faraway objects. That means scientists looking for distant objects beyond Neptune – including the hunt for the mysterious Planet Nine – might have trouble when Starlink is complete. Additionally, Starlink may be much more visible during twilight hours, or the first few hours of the night, which could be a major problem in the hunt for massive asteroids headed toward Earth. “It depends on what science you’re doing, and that’s really what it comes down to,” Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard and spaceflight expert who wrote the study accepted by Astrophysical Journal Letters, as reported by The Verge.
Meanwhile, scientists are also learning if SpaceX’s effort to mitigate the brightness of its satellites is actually going to work. The company coated one of its satellites in an attempt to make it appear less visible in the sky. Now, the first observations of that satellite are being published, and the coating is working – but it might not be enough to make everyone happy. “It doesn’t solve the issue,” Jeremy Tregloan-Reed, a researcher at the University of Antofagasta and lead author on the study, which is undergoing peer review at Astronomy and Astrophysics Letters, tells The Verge. “But it shows that SpaceX has taken on board astronomers’ concerns, and it does appear to be trying to solve the situation.”
“We all knew [the satellites] were coming, but we never imagined they were going to be so bright,” James Lowenthal, an astronomer at Smith College in Massachusetts, said during a plenary talk at the 236th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), held virtually on June 2, 2020.
SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb say their satellite mega-constellations will make broadband internet greatness available to billions of people around the world who are unserved or underserved – but some say those promises have to be weighed against the potential perils.
These critics cite the risk of catastrophic satellite collisions, concerns about cybersecurity and worries about environmental and health impacts – including impacts on astronomical observations and the beauties of the night sky.
Such concerns are likely to intensify as SpaceX and OneWeb add to their current fleets of satellites in low Earth orbit, and as Amazon gets set to deploy more than 3,200 satellites for its Project Kuiper broadband network, If all the plans laid out for those ventures come to pass, tens of thousands of satellites could be put into orbit over the next decade.
Is astronomy from the earth really that important anymore anyways?
It is absolutely vital to understand what advantages astronomy has from space versus on the ground, because the benefits are enormous. For one, there is never daytime or any light pollution to contend with; it is always night from space when you point away from the Sun. You do not have to worry about clouds, weather, or atmospheric turbulence from space, whereas on Earth, you are basically looking out at the Universe from the bottom of a giant, atmosphere-filled swimming pool.
All the confounding factors that have to be dealt with on Earth, from molecular absorption and emission signatures like ozone, sodium, water vapor, etc., are eliminated by going to space. You can observe anywhere you want, all across the electromagnetic spectrum, and there is no atmosphere blocking your view. And can get incomparably large, wide, precise fields-of-view without any directional biases.
In short, your views of the Universe are wholly unobstructed if you leave the bonds of Earth. If you are willing to go a little farther away – out of low-Earth orbit and farther away, such as to the L2 Lagrange point – you can cool yourself down tremendously, avoid the noisy signals originating from Earth, and still respond to any Earth-issued command in just 5 seconds: the light-travel time from Earth’s surface to L2.
No matter what pollutants we wreak upon the Earth, even if we lose all our dark skies and our ability to track and image objects from the ground due to a catastrophic set of satellites, we will still have space to help us achieve our astronomical dreams. Which is good, because even if all we had were the first 12,000 Starlink satellites added to the mix, this is what the night sky would look like to professional astronomers.
While it is easy to point to the ways that space-based astronomy has superiority to ground-based astronomy, there are still substantial advantages that being on the ground offers, and that astronomers continue to take advantage of even in a post-Hubble era. We can create images, collect data, and perform scientific investigations that simply cannot occur with space-based observatories alone.
If we can keep our skies dark, clear, and unobstructed, ground-based astronomy is sure to enter a golden age as the 21st century unfolds. Here is what’s great about the ground.
- SIZE – Simply put, you can build a larger ground-based observatory, with a larger primary mirror, than you can build or assemble in space
- RELIABILITY – When we build a new telescope on the ground, there’s no risk of a launch failure
- VERSATILITY – Once you are in space, gravity and the laws of motion pretty much fix where your observatory is going to be at any given time
- MAINTENANCE – This is at the root of an infrastructure problem: you have more of it on the ground than you will ever have in space
- UPGRADABILITY – By the time that a space telescope is launched, the instruments aboard it are already obsolete
It is definitely a puzzling quandary. It is a debate that can go either way – the endless march forward of technological progress versus the losses and risks that we accept for change. There are clear pros and cons to both space-based and earth-based astronomy.
The Next Generation of Space Telescope
The James Webb Space Telescope (sometimes called JWST or Webb) will be a large infrared telescope with an approximately 6.5 meter primary mirror. The telescope will be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in 2021.
Webb will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.
Webb was formerly known as the “Next Generation Space Telescope” (NGST); it was renamed in Sept. 2002 after a former NASA administrator, James Webb.
On October 31, 2021, the powerful Ariane 5 rocket is scheduled to launch the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Arianespace used an Ariane 5 ECA rocket, designated VA256, to launch the James Webb Space Telescope, a flagship observatory developed by NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. JWST is the largest space telescope ever built, with a deployable mirror measuring 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) in diameter and four scientific instruments to observe the universe in infrared wavelengths. The mission will study the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets. The Ariane 5 ECA rocket will launch JWST on a trajectory toward its operating position at the L2 Lagrange point nearly a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.
This blog post is a mash-up of the thoughts and images of others, all combined to deconstruct and the construct these complex issues and frame the high-level problem for further discussion. These content owners are cited in the Reference and Image Sections below. All rights belong to the various artist, authors and publishers.
Bartels, M. (2020). Astronomers and SpaceX coming together to make Starlink megaconstellation less disruptive to science. Space.com is part of Future US Inc. Retrieved on May 19, 2021 from, https://www.space.com/spacex-starlink-satellites-astronomers-visibility-response.html
Boyle, A. (2021). Critics take aim at SpaceX’s Starlink, Amazon’s Project Kuiper and other satellite constellations. GeekWire, LLC. Retrieved on May 19, 2021 from, https://www.geekwire.com/2021/critics-take-aim-spacex-starlink-amazon-kuiper-satellite-constellations/
Grush, L. (2020). The true impact of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation on astronomy is coming into focus. The Verge, Vox Media. Retrieved on May 19, 2021 from, https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/24/21190273/spacex-starlink-satellite-internet-constellation-astronomy-coating
Siegal, E. (2019). This Is Why We Can’t Just Do All Of Our Astronomy From Space. Forbes. Retrieved on May 19, 2021 from, https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2019/11/27/this-is-why-we-cant-just-do-all-of-our-astronomy-from-space/?sh=7424afc62704
Zhang, E. (2020). SpaceX’s Dark Satellites Are Still Too Bright for Astronomers. Scientific American, a Division of Springer Nature America, Inc. Retrieved on May 19, 2021 from, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/spacexs-dark-satellites-are-still-too-bright-for-astronomers/
Unknown. (2021). Webb Space Telescope. NASA. Retrieved on May 19, 2021 from, https://www.jwst.nasa.gov/content/about/index.html
Image 1: The Cover Image of the Starlink constellation is from Techspot
Image 2: The Artist Rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope is from NASA
Image 3: The computer generated image of space junk is from NASA
Image 4: Time-lapse image shows the passage of a Starlink satellite cluster (bright streaks) through a telescope’s field of view at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile in November 2019. Credit: CTIO, NOIRLab, NSF, AURA and DECam DELVE Survey
About the Author:
Michael Martin is the Vice President of Technology with Metercor Inc., a Smart Meter, IoT, and Smart City systems integrator based in Canada. He has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He was senior executive consultant for 15 years with IBM, where he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.