Starlink: Wi-fi from Sci-Fi or an Astronomers Nightmare

By James Neil

2020 is looking to be a year of peculiar science stories. To start in January, we heard about Japanese fashion Mogul, Yusaku Maezawa looking for a date to take on a trip around the moon. You know it’s going to be a weird one if this is how we start the year.

Image of starlink satellites across the night sky | courtesy of Marco Langbroek, SatTrackCam Leiden (b)log

However, Mr. Maezawa isn’t the only one looking to the stars, as once again everyone's favourite philanthropist Elon Musk is looking to space. One of his more recent plans, which started in May last year, has run into controversy with astronomers. Musk's project named Starlink aims to put a 'constellation' of satellites in orbit of the earth with the aim of providing Wi-Fi around the world by 2021, including areas in which coverage is sparse or unprofitable to do so. With these satellites being the first spacecraft boasting a krypton gas ion engine the whole prospect seems far too science fiction to believe, but then again Musk is no stranger to the realms of science fiction, from his falcon heavy rocket's that can land and be reused, to him sending a Telsa car into orbit back in 2018. Last year, we even saw his plan work with him claiming to have sent a tweet via Starlink in late October.

The problem with this revolutionary plan is that some astronomers have found that the satellites are affecting their observations. Last May, these satellites could be seen trailing across the night sky. There are currently 180 of these satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), at approximately 550km with musk aiming to have 1200 more in orbit by the end the year, sending them up in groups of 60, and double that number proposed for the future. With only a fraction of the planned number of satellites in orbit, their presence has begun to interfere with the work of ground-based astronomers. I asked Ph.D. student Niall Miller about his thoughts on Starlink and how it has affected his research on variations of stars over long term observation. He told me that the Starlink satellites have rendered some of his research data useless by blocking out the light from the stars he is observing using the beacon observatory out in Parkwood. In addition to this, it has led to him along with many other astronomers being unable to trust their Research as he found that variations he had been detecting for months were caused by one of the satellites. This is a massive problem  if astronomers cannot trust their data sets, they cannot make any advancements in the field. Indeed, he informed me that the ISST in Chile, when built, predicts that if Musk's plan goes ahead, they will see at least one satellite in each image they take.

He also talked about some of the concerns astronomers have for the future if this project continues. Firstly, he talked about how Space X's project will lead to a slippery slope effect where other companies start to have similar projects. Facebook has been toying with the idea of launching satellites they call Athena and amazon also planning a similar project. He continued with this argument saying that this could lead to a problem called Kessler syndrome, where LEO is overpopulated and as such satellites smash into each over like bumper cars, resulting in a layer of debris in low earth orbit that would make leaving earth’s atmosphere even harder than it already is. A problem that could potentially stop any of Musk’ plans for space travel if it was to occur, in-spite of the satellites 5-year lifespan.

With Starlink aiming to have 1200 satellites in orbit by the end of the year and Musk promise to coat future satellites in a matte black paint to reduce their brightness, only time will tell if they cause the trouble