5,000 is the current number of satellites in our sky. This number was still 2200 in 2019, but it has almost doubled, in particular because of SpaceX’s “Starlink” project. This project aims to provide an Internet connection to the entire surface of the Earth through a mega-constellation of satellites.
Since the launch of the project, Starlink has already deployed more than 2,000 satellites in orbit. Unfortunately, these thousands of satellites, necessary for the realization of the SpaceX project, have a negative impact on a major scientific field which is astronomy. Their streaks of light interfere with astronomical observations made from the ground.
Given the scale of the project, the IAU or International Astronomical Union has just announced the establishment of a center that will unify astronomers and repel mega-constellations. This center is called the “IAU Center for the Protection of Dark and Calm Sky Against Interference from Satellite Constellations”.
What are the objectives of the center?
According to Alice Gorman, space archaeologist at Flinders University, this IAU project is really important because according to projections, 100,000 new satellites will be placed in orbit by the end of the decade.
Thus, the center will be able to coordinate international information and responses, and provide a single, strong voice to the community of astronomers.
Why react to this new type of pollution?
In order to properly observe and study space, certain conditions are necessary. For optical astronomy, the sky must be dark, that is to say, you must be far from places with a high level of light pollution, and avoid satellites that reflect sunlight.
As far as radio telescopes are concerned, silence is a fundamental parameter. The SKA (Square Kilometer Array) observatory, one of the hosts of the IUA center, for example, listens to a wide range of radio frequencies. Some of these frequencies are however used by Starlink and other mega-constellations.
According to Gorman, today we are witnessing a kind of “battle royale” between commercial satellite operators and astronomers. Thus, the new center will mainly monitor the constellations of satellites, find ways to remove them from the images, but also propose modifications to the devices.
For her part, Jessica West, space security researcher for Project Plowshares, indicated that this was not a battle between satellites and astronomy, but rather the search for a way to arbitrate the different needs and interests, as well as the values that unite in space.