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On Monday morning, SpaceX launched one of its reusable rockets from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying 60 satellites into space at once. It was the second payload of Starlink, its planned constellation of tens of thousands of orbiting transmitters to beam internet service across the globe.
When SpaceX, the private rocket company founded by Elon Musk, launched the first batch of Starlink orbiters in May, many astronomers were surprised to see that the satellites were extremely bright, causing them to fear that the constellation would wreak havoc on scientific research and transform our view of the stars. Since then, many scientists have been on a mission to better quantify the impacts of Starlink and to share their concerns with SpaceX.
In response, SpaceX has said that it wants to mitigate the potential impacts of Starlink. But at the same time, the company is still moving full steam ahead.
In October, Musk announced that he was using Twitter via a Starlink internet connection, as his company was requesting permission from the Federal Communications Commission to operate as many as 30,000 satellites on top of the 12,000 already approved. Should SpaceX succeed in sending this many satellites to low-Earth orbit, its constellation would contain more than eight times as many satellites as the total number currently in orbit.
That move added to the worries of many astronomers.
When James Lowenthal, an astronomer at Smith College, first saw the train of Starlink satellites marching like false stars across the night sky in the spring, he knew something had shifted.
Most of the first Starlink nodes have since moved to higher orbits and are now invisible for most of us who live under bright city lights. But they are still noticeable from places with dark skies.
A spokeswoman from SpaceX said the company was taking steps to paint the Earth-facing bases of the satellites black to reduce their reflectiveness. But Anthony Tyson, an astronomer at the University of California, Davis, said that would not solve the problem.
SpaceX’s 30,000 satellites might also just be the start as other companies, such as Amazon, Telesat and OneWeb, plan to launch similar mega-constellations.
“If there are lots and lots of bright moving objects in the sky, it tremendously complicates our job,” Lowenthal said. “It potentially threatens the science of astronomy itself.”
There are no regulations in place to protect the skies against light pollution.