‘Protect our amazing night sky from pollution’ - Preston's astronomers fear 'mega constellation' could ruin night sky

Preston astronomers and stargazers have voiced major concerns over plans that could see up to 42,000 satellites permanently litter the night skies in what is being dubbed a ‘mega constellation’.

Tuesday, 31st December 2019, 5:00 pm
Starlink satellites seen from Preston on December 29, 2019. Pictures by Benjamin Wareing.
Starlink satellites seen from Preston on December 29, 2019. Pictures by Benjamin Wareing.

SpaceX, a space exploration company based in America, has launched 122 satellites of their ‘Starlink’ constellation so far, with aims of launching nearly 12,000 by the mid-2020s and a push for upwards of 42,000 planned to orbit the planet.

Beginning its launch campaign next week, the Starlink satellites will provide high-speed broadband internet worldwide, with other companies such as Amazon and OneWeb plan to launch similar fleets.

The first 122 satellites have already caused significant problems and concern for astronomers and stargazers around the world, with professional observatories raising objection to the ‘cluttering’ of low/mid-orbit space with satellites that could interrupt observations, long exposure photographs and monitoring.

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“The sheer size of the constellations will increase the number of satellites visible by a factor of 20 or more.

He warns that the worst possible case could be that companies launch thousands of satellites, go bust, and then leave a large amount of space ‘junk’ (debris) in orbit.

Dr Norris said: “The economics are also uncertain, it will cost many billions of pounds to set up the system, and significant sums to keep it working, so it is hard to judge currently whether the systems will be revolutionary, or expensive white elephants.

“Simulations indicate that with large space internet constellations almost all observations will suffer from bright satellite tracks through the images, making the observation useless.

“In practice there are some forms of astronomy that become entirely impossible from ground-based observatories.”

Images released by the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in northern Chile show dozens of Starlink satellites causing large, bright dotted streaks across images captured by the observatories Dark Energy Camera.

Stars and other constellations are barely visible compared to the Starlink constellation.

Astronomers argued that the intense streaks caused by the newly-launched satellites would be impossible to filter from raw data, and that complex algorithms needed to filter out the streaks would be near impossible to create and maintain at the pace more launches are planned.

There are currently no regulations that control the brightness of satellites, although SpaceX says it will redesign the base of newly-launched Starlink satellites black to lower the impacts on astronomical observations across the world, and that adjustments will be made to Starlink orbits if needed.

Preston and Lancashire has a strong stargazing and astronomical following with the Moor Park observatory and Alston Observatory in close proximity.

A stargazing page managed by Robert Ince from Preston has more than 16,000 followers, giving an idea of its popularity in the city.

Robert said: “The Starlink constellation of satellites will likely have a huge impact on astro photographers and visual astronomers both amateur and professional alike.

“It simply won’t be possible to take long exposure images of the night sky without having them invaded by the vast number of satellites planned.

“They will leave streaks across images, obscuring the target intended, making it much more difficult to detect faint sources such as asteroids, themselves only visible by observing their movement between images.”

Warning of a future affected by the Starlink satellites, Robert said: “These satellites right now are in distinct clumps and so you could just disregard the time of their passing, but as the numbers grow, the gaps between the passes diminish to nothing.

“It is expected that when the constellation is complete, there will be no part of the sky bigger than a few full moons wide where there won’t be satellites at any time.”

Stargazers and astronomers are being urged to see the Starlink satellites for themselves and make their own minds up as the growing constellation becomes visible to UK audiences multiple times per night. Go Stargazing have posted an informational video at their Facebook page.