Clear, unobstructed images of the stars above will “no longer be the norm,” a group of US scientists warned, thanks to Elon Musk’s network of Starlink satellites. But Musk is not the only businessman who may blot out the sky.
Musk launched his Starlink project last year with a lofty goal: to bring high-speed internet access to the remotest corners of our planet, using tens of thousands of low-Earth orbit satellites (LEOsats) to ensure blanket coverage. To that end, he’s already fired several hundred of these devices into orbit, with the most recent launch – three weeks ago – seeing another 60 shot into the sky.
Scientists have already warned Musk that these satellites have clouded their vision of the heavens and interfered with their research. According to a new report by more than 250 scientists, astronomers, engineers and other stargazers, however, the change will likely be permanent.
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“Nighttime images without the passage of a Sun-illuminated satellite will no longer be the norm,” read the report, published on Tuesday after a conference on the issue in July. The report’s authors include members of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and American Astronomical Society, and these space scholars foresee Musk’s network putting their research in danger.
Giant 30-meter telescopes, like those at Arizona’s Lowell Observatory and the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, “significantly enhance mankind’s understanding of the cosmos,” Lowell’s Jeff Hall said in an NSF press release, cautioning that clusters of communications satellites “could have serious negative consequences” for this research.
Musk’s starlink satellites orbit between 340 and 550 kilometers (210 to 340 miles) above the Earth, and therefore don’t interfere with observation during the night’s darkest hours. However, Musk is not the only billionaire with dreams of saturating the sky with satellites, and Richard Branson’s OneWeb project – which went bankrupt this year and was bought by the UK government and an Indian telecommunications consortium – plans on launching 48,000 satellites into orbit at 1,200 kilometers (750 miles). At this height, the report states that they will be illuminated by sunlight “all night long.”
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The only way of saving the night sky,