Mega constellations, also known as low earth-orbit (“LEO”) satellite constellations, are webs of networked satellites that orbit the Earth at altitudes of 2,000 km or less intended to provide global telecommunications services. The brightness and frequency of the objects have caused concern amongst the astronomy community, and the general public. (Read more about IDA and megaconstellations from our previous post, Why Do Megaconstellations Matter to the Dark Sky Community?)
IDA’s Executive Director, Ruskin Hartley, responded to the issue of megaconstellations at the 235th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January, where he joined members of the professional astronomy community for a panel discussion about challenges to astronomy from satellites. Hartley shared IDA’s concerns about the impact of megaconstellations on stargazers and the general public.
IDA’s five principles to preserve the quiet enjoyment of the night sky and protect the general public from the impacts of megaconstellations:
1. Stewardship of the night sky is a shared responsibility that requires participation and consultation with all stakeholders.
2. The cumulative impact on night sky brightness attributed to satellites does not exceed 10 percent above natural background levels.
3. Maintained satellite brightness is below the threshold for detection by the unaided eye.
4. Satellite visibility is an unusual occurrence.
5. Launch schedules and orbital parameters are publicly available in advance.
*Adopted January 2020. Amended September 2021.
(Read more about IDA and megaconstellations at The Guardian, and Space.com.)
Jeffrey C. Hall from Lowell Observatory, Harvey Liszt from National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and Patrick Seitzer, an astronomy research professor emeritus and space debris expert from the University of Michigan, joined Ruskin for the panel discussion. At the meeting, Seitzer announced the alarming results of his recent satellite modeling efforts. According to Seitzer, approximately 200 objects currently orbiting the Earth are visible to the unaided eye. By the end of 2020, Starlink will have increased this number by 1,586, a nine-fold increase. The Starlink satellites could be brighter than ninety-nine percent of all objects currently in Earth’s orbit. The satellites are brightest when fully illuminated by the Sun, which happens during twilight and can also occur during the night, depending on the location and time of year.
During the Conference, SpaceX acknowledged the concerns, and reiterated their commitment to finding a way forward that does not impede astronomical research, and by extension the public view of the night sky.
A press conference preceding the panel discussion is available online. Watch to learn more!
The Dark Sky Community Responds
We recently asked you, the dark sky community, your thoughts about satellite megaconstellations. IDA received responses from International Dark Sky Place managers who have spent countless hours and resources protecting the night sky, IDA chapters and advocates who work to educate their communities about the importance of looking up, astrophotographers who stay awake all night to capture and share the beauty of the heavens, amateur astronomers who invest themselves in the study of the cosmos, and professional astronomers who make a living out of studying what’s beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
“[Astronomy] is…a sacred right…a birthright as well as one of the original humanities. In recent times it was at least possible to escape light pollution by taking a road trip.
Only now, when you show up to that long-wanted view of the heavens, it is beyond your repair.” – James Cormier
Ninety-five percent of those who responded reported that they are concerned about the impacts of megaconstellations. Paul Clark, from the UK, is working within his community to achieve International Dark Sky Place designation. He asked, “How will future generations experience and understand their place in the universe?”
Can you see the Starlink megaconstellation from your location?
Track the SpaceX Satellites with the SpaceX Starlink Tracker, and let us know what you see. Email [email protected] with your location, the date and time of observation, which obect(s) you observed, and the estimated magnitude of the object. If you are an astro-photographer and have images of the satellites, please include images with your email.
Learn more about megaconstellations from our December 27, 2019 blog post, “Why Megaconstellations Matter to the Dark Sky Community.”