A couple of days ago, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled a plan to help keep the company’s thousands of Starlink satellites from becoming a very noticeable blight on the night sky, a complaint we’ve heard from astronomers and astrophotographers alike.
The “announcement” was made over Twitter two days ago, just as SpaceX was planning to launch its 8th payload of Starlink satellites into orbit. Starting with Launch #9, says Musk, the satellites will be equipped with “sunshades” to reduce the brightness of their solar panels.
“We are taking some key steps to reduce satellite brightness btw,” writes Musk. “Should be much less noticeable during orbit raise by changing solar panel angle & all sats get sunshades starting with launch 9.”
Thanks! We are taking some key steps to reduce satellite brightness btw. Should be much less noticeable during orbit raise by changing solar panel angle & all sats get sunshades starting with launch 9.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 22, 2020
This issue was first brought to light in mid-2019, but it really blew up last month when NASA asked the public to help them track the growing number of satellites, saying they could “wreak havoc with astronomers trying to photograph astronomical objects,” because of their highly reflective solar panels.
Each Starlink launch includes about 60 satellites—not much in the grand scheme of things—but SpaceX has been approved to launch 12,000 of them to build their space-based Internet system, and is seeking permission to launch 30,000 more. ISS astronauts are already noticing them now, when there are less than 500 in orbit, so you can imagine what another 11,500+ could do.
Fortunately, it sounds like SpaceX has a plan, and that plan will be applied as early as Launch #9, which is scheduled to take place next month. If Musk and Co. can handle this downside, then maybe photographers won’t have to plan their next astrophotography outing around how to avoid the company’s “Internet constellation.”
Image credits: Header photo by SpaceX, CC BY-NC 2.0