SpaceX is among cutting-edge companies racing to populate low Earth orbit with “tens of thousands of satellites”. Its Starlink project is an audacious attempt to develop a low-cost space-based internet system. Low Earth orbit describes an area of space surrounding our planet at around 1,200 miles (2,000km) height.
The number of artificial satellites in this region stood below 200 up until this year.
However, The Royal Astronomical Society has now announced its “concern” over Starlink’s potential impact on both views of the night sky and on astronomical research.
Starlink, and other similar networks planned by OneWeb, Amazon and Telesat, aims to offer internet coverage around the world.
Each network consists of thousands of satellites which will be visible over a significant proportion of the sky from most of the world.
The Royal Astronomical Society wrote in a statement: “Initial images of the constellation suggest that they will exhibit frequent reflective flaring, where transient alignment with sunlight leads to temporary surges in brightness.
“Increasing the number of satellites so significantly presents a challenge to ground-based astronomy.
“The deployed networks could make it much harder to obtain images of the sky without the streaks associated with satellites, and thus compromise astronomical research.
“Given the scale of these projects, there is also the prospect of a significant and lasting change to the views of the night sky until now enjoyed throughout human history and pre-history.
“The night sky is part of the cultural heritage of humanity, and the Society believes that it deserves protection.”
The esteemed scientific society also adds there has been no consultation between SpaceX and the scientific community in advance of the Starlink launch, although they note SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has indicated he wishes to minimise the impact on astronomy.
The Society adds: “We urge SpaceX, and other satellite providers, to work with scientists, engineers and others to mitigate the effects of the new constellations.
“We also ask that the provider companies consider the impact on human heritage too – an issue that goes far beyond the concerns of the astronomical community.”
Almost immediately after a Falcon 9 rocket released the first batch of the SpaceX’s Starlink broadband internet satellites last month, astronomers were distressed by just how bright and noticeable the train of orbiting routers were in the night sky.
And the Royal Astronomical Society are now alone in calling for action to be taken over Starlink.
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) earlier this week made a formal call for new government regulation to be made over the satellite constellation.
In a statement Monday, the IAU said large satellite constellations like Starlink could have unforeseen consequences for advancing our understanding of the universe and the protection of nocturnal wildlife.
They wrote: ”We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky and despite their good intentions, these satellite constellations may threaten both.”