Milwaukee Astronomical Society


The Debate on Satellite Constellations Continues

"What is that moving thing up there?" asked the child to his father as they stargazed from their backyard. "That, son, is a satellite. There are thousands of them in the night sky, and if you're lucky, you might be able to see one."

Many of us, upon viewing a satellite at night, yell to our stargazing comrades: "Look! I see a satellite!" After our delightful yells, we point out the satellite to our friends. Satellites, as unnatural, not natural objects, add to the exceptional and humbling experience of stargazing. There, among the beautiful heavens, small, artificial points of light move in the sky. Compared to the immense suns that fill the night sky with a hazy, familiar glow, the satellites are mere ants, mere atoms in a universe of starlight.

As our technology advances, the number of artificial atoms in the universe of starlight begins to increase. The points of light become ever-more common, filling the sky with their light. My mother once told me about her childhood experiences stargazing in Door County, Wisconsin. She told me that, in the 1970s, seeing a satellite was extremely rare; generally, she would be lucky to see even one in a night. Now, as I gaze at the heavens from Door County, myself, I can point out at least fifteen to thirty satellites in a night.

With the rise of satellite constellations, the prominence of satellites in our night sky continues to advance. Various companies and governments, such as Elon Musk's Starlink and Amazon's satellite constellation Kuiper, are set to launch tens of thousands of satellites in the coming years. Starlink, a company working to supply broadband internet to the entire world, alone has well over ten thousand satellites approved for launch.

Following a launch of Starlink satellites, the uninformed populace (virtually the entire populace) panics as a constellation of UFOs orbits from horizon to horizon. The entire world, whether informed or uninformed, gazes with wonder at the magnificent spectacle: dozens of equidistant points of light brighter than Alioth and Dubhe, the two brightest stars in the Big Dipper, traverse the sky from 550 kilometers (340 miles) above Earth's surface.

Soon, these bright satellites will be everywhere; recently, SpaceX, already having permission to launch 12,000 Starlink satellites, requested space for an additional 30,000 satellites, bringing its total accepted satellite fleet to 42,000. With Starlink, the UFOs shall become only more common in the coming years.

Though a dazzling display, Starlink satellites are torture for the astronomical community. An image taken at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile in November 2019 shows the effect of satellite trails on research telescopes built to observe and image extremely faint objects. Once the Starlink satellites reach orbit, they have an apparent magnitude of about +5.5, far dimmer than Alioth and Dubhe, yet still bright enough to be discerned by the human eye. Thousands of bright Starlink satellites wreak havoc on research telescopes, instruments that often have visual limiting magnitudes of +27 or greater.

Starlink Satellites image - Scientific American

Above, an image taken by the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile shows the interference with astronomical research caused by the proliferation of satellite megaconstellations. The many lines in this image are the light trails of the orbiting Starlink satellites, captured in November 2019.

SpaceX, along with astronomers, has been working to limit the light pollution caused by their satellites. Various procedures, including coatings that reduce the satellites' albedo, have reduced the apparent magnitude of the satellites (around 55%, or .8 magnitude), but astronomers say that the coating is not effective enough, for the satellites continue to interfere with astronomical research and remain bright enough to be observed by the naked eye.

Understanding the importance of an unobstructed night sky on both astronomical research and the human experience, astronomers have begun to fight to limit the effects of satellite megaconstellations. Through the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a nongovernmental organization working to advance every aspect of astronomy, astronomers have sought to gain international awareness into the obstruction of astronomical research caused by satellite interference.

Their work will culminate in a United Nations forum next month when diplomats may debate whether humanity has a right to access 'dark and quiet night skies.' A discussion over satellite megaconstellations at the United Nations will shed light on the growing problem between research and satellites. However, the debate on satellite interference remains ongoing, and there exists no legislation or regulation aimed at combating the hindrances on research caused by satellite interference.

Unfortunately, for now, the satellites remain burdens on professional and amateur astronomers alike. Researchers are less able to conduct observations with satellite interference, and amateur astronomers are less able to enjoy the night sky on clear nights. Satellites, while often a sight that creates wonder, now pollute our sky. Beyond astronomical research, astronomers fear that satellites will render the night sky even less accessible.

Like light pollution, satellite pollution is more than an environmental or scientific problem, but rather a human problem. We, as humans, are inextricably bound to the night sky. That sky, like astronomy, is a humbling and character-building experience, and without it, we lose our humanity. The most indefatigable activists fighting against satellite pollution are the professional astronomers, who cite the loss of research as a consequence of satellite pollution. However, the loss of astronomers' research is only a portion of the human loss, for we, as humans, will lose our skies.

"Grandpa, what is that stationary point up there?" asked the child as he pointed at the sky. "That, grandson, is Sirius. It is the brightest star in the night sky. If the sky is clear enough and if you are lucky enough, you may be able to see it," responded the father. Amazed at the faint star, the child asked, "Are there any other stars out there?" to which the father replied, "Yes."

"Can I see them?" the curious child asked.

Now sad, even despondent, the grandfather replied, "No. Long ago, you could see as many as three thousand stars every night, but those stars are now invisible here." The two of them walked back into the house as the innumerable satellites orbited above them.