Will Elon Musk Starlink Satellites Ruin Astrophotography?

Will Elon Musk Starlink Satellites Ruin Astrophotography?

The recent large scale deployment of the first piece of the SpaceX satellite constellation triggered a controversy among astronomers and astro-photographers. With the planned launch of 12,000 satellites by the mid-2020s, some people fear the worst. What is really going on?

The Starlink concept is simple: inject thousands of satellite in low earth orbit to create a space-based Internet communication system that will provide worldwide coverage anywhere on the planet. Unfortunately, regular star observer knows that orbiting satellites can become visible when they reflect the sunlight back to earth. The observability of a satellite depends of several factors such as the size and nature of the object, the angle of the sunlight in relation to the ground, the orientation of the solar panels of the spacecraft, the distance from earth, and the time of the day. But with 12,000 satellites scheduled for lift-off, several astronomers are concerned about the potential light pollution that could be caused by the Starlink constellation. Astro-photographers could also be impacted since this type of imagery requires long exposure and having thousands of artificial stars crisscrossing the sky at any moment may not be helpful.

Bill Kell, an astronomy professor at the University of Alabama says: “I saw a pass of the Starlink Train about 15 degrees from zenith over Tuscaloosa. Some of them showed very systematic flaring, flashing brightly at nearly the same location in the sky. The brightest flares reached a magnitude of 2 for about 5 seconds.” "For reference, that’s 50% brighter than Sirius, the brightest star in the sky" explains space weather archive.

Elon Musk initially discarded the concerns but he finally asked his engineers to reduce the albedo of the satellites (decrease the light reflection).

However, as the satellites are gaining altitude, they should be less visible. For Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics: “It’ll be weeks or months before we can fully assess the situation.”

In any case, if this concern is justified, M. Musk promised that his team will "make sure Starlink has no material effect on discoveries in astronomy. We care a great deal about science."

Cover Photo by SpaceX on Unsplash.

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25 Comments

These satellites are so low, I would only expect them to be visible around twilight and not into the darkest part of the night. Now that might still be irritating depending on what you are shooting, but no more so than aircraft.

greg tennyson's picture

Even if they ARE visible, having reliable internet in remote places is far more valuable than you shooting star trails and glowing tents for your IG followers.

Good. I have searched the internet to find the person who is the arbiter of what's really important in the world and have finally found him.

Now, my big question for you is "paper or plastic?"

Anyway, why do they need all of that reliable internet if there is nothing on my instagram feed?

greg tennyson's picture

I'm here anytime you need me dude.

The internet is good for things besides instagram. Crazy, I know.

Michael Holst's picture

The benefits seem to outweigh the annoyance for a relatively small group of people.

Spy Black's picture

...because you need to watch your cat videos in bumfuck.

greg tennyson's picture

...or access to emergency services, navigation data... you know, other important stuff besides cat videos.

Ryan Luna's picture

not an issue for those of us that stack images.

Adriano Brigante's picture

"There are already 4900 satellites in orbit, which people notice ~0% of the time. Starlink won’t be seen by anyone unless looking very carefully & will have ~0% impact on advancements in astronomy. We need to move telelscopes to orbit anyway."

What a disdainful reply! Basically, what he's saying is "F*** you, people who still care about the night sky, amateur astronomers and astrophotographers."
Well, you know what? F*** you, Elon Musk!

Andrew Leman's picture

Would have been better said "I'm not going to withhold internet access for all mankind because a small group of people are too lazy to clone stamp a satellite from their photo"

Either way to word it is perfectly fine. To ask that he doesn't give internet access to the remaining 43.9% of the world just so you can have pretty star photos is incredibly self centered and idiotic.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Satellite internet access with an almost worldwide coverage already exists. And he's not "giving" anything to anyone. He's just gonna *sell* *faster* internet access to people who can afford to spend hundreds of dollars a year for it. And he's not doing it to benefit mankind. He's doing it to make a profit.

michaeljin's picture

Your priorities are way out of whack.

Adriano Brigante's picture

Protecting the night sky from light pollution so the future generations can enjoy it vs. high speed internet access in the middle of nowhere for $600 a year... Yeah, I guess our priorities are different.

michaeljin's picture

One of these two things are of far greater utility to human progress in general and it's not the night sky. Just pretend that there are a few more stars in the sky FFS. You're thinking small. "Future generations" will be enjoying the stars from beyond orbit.

Spy Black's picture

...because watching cat videos in bumfuck is far more important.

michaeljin's picture

Global connectivity is huge. Sure, we have major satellite coverage right now, but there are vast swaths of the earth where it is limited. I am not talking about some rich person on a private island getting 5G here. Our world depends on reliable global connectivity in many forms. While this may be a commercial implementation (not sure about this particular project), I am sure that corporations and governments will lease use of it once it is implemented.

It's precisely because we do NOT have stuff like this that we are forced to rely on antiquated transponder signals to keep track of flights (and flights can subsequently disappear without a trace), soldiers fighting in the field are forced to leave cover into open areas to establish communication uplinks to their command centers, and countries such as China and the DPRK are able to apply widespread censorship of the exchange of ideas that the rest of us enjoy.

Like with all things digital, it's not enough to just rely on a single technology, either. The more different methods you have to connecting across the globe, the more stable everything is due to redundancies. I get that some purists are angry about some of those things that look like stars in their night sky actually being satellites, but compared to the potential benefits to just about every aspect of communications and commerce if something like this were to be successfully implemented, I think the cries of sky watchers are an insignificant gripe. Truth be told, these people are probably inadvertently looking at and photographing satellites everyday without even knowing about it.

The only reason for the outcry is that this is Elon Musk and a particular mission with an unusually large deployment. I'm not going to pretend that the dude is a saint, but this is the future and quite frankly, a project like this is long overdue. I'm just surprised that it was a private entity rather than a government who decided to kick this into high gear.

Spy Black's picture

"Global connectivity is huge. Sure, we have major satellite coverage right now, but there are vast swaths of the earth where it is limited."

Right, because starving kids in Somalia need to watch cat videos.

"Our world depends on reliable global connectivity in many forms."

So do fascist governments that want to keep track of everyone's movements, like China, Russia, and the US.

michaeljin's picture

You seem to be really stuck on this "cat videos" thing. Starving kids in Somalia don't need to watch cat videos, but I'm sure they would appreciate the ability to do so if they wanted. That aside, good connectivity would do a lot to improve logistics and communication for efforts to provide aid. Access to the internet would also open the inhabitants up to the global community and provide new avenues of opportunity to voice themselves or create income. None of these things will be solved overnight, but the fact that Somalians have more pressing needs than watching cat videos isn't actually a reason not to invest into this kind of global communications infrastructure. People are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

Please stop pretending like privacy is still a thing. It's not nor will it ever be. That genie is out of the bottle and is not going back in. The sooner people come to accept this new paradigm, the sooner we can move on from all of this nonsense of people trying to hold back human progress for the sake of outdated notions of how private their dealings ought to be. You're not going to make facial recognition technology go away. You're not going to stop everything you do online from being logged. The enhancement of technology, not fascist governments, is what has destroyed human privacy so unless you suggest that we go back to the Industrial Ages, I'd suggest that you get with the program otherwise you're just going to be very bitter.

Do you know what the biggest defense against things like global tracking are? Don't give anyone a reason to actually look into your file. I know that everyone thinks that they are some sort of snowflake, that the government is keeping special tabs on, but most people have terabytes of data logged about them and it just goes into the same digital dustbin as the other billion people out there whom are also being tracked. I would wager that if they wanted, Facebook could pinpoint exactly where you are at any given moment withing a hundred meters even if you're not on the platform, but what incentive would they have to do that? Looking up data and making sense of it costs resources. Without that part, the tracking is meaningless.

Spy Black's picture

"Please stop pretending like privacy is still a thing."

It's not a matter of privacy, it is indeed long gone. It's about control.

michaeljin's picture

Control is similarly an illusion. None of us have ever had any real control since before we were even conceived. We simply like to pretend that we do.

Rick Nash's picture

Most think the Starlink network benefits will outweigh its negative consequences. Who has reviewed this and made the determination? I'm not convinced global internet as per Elon Musk's vision provides the world with a better experience. For instance, countries that have decided they dont want American propaganda presently limit access to such influences. Don't be surprised they will take great exception to a network which bypasses their sovereignty. They might decide to disable such satellites. It will definitely cause international dischord and who knows how it will escalate. Space will move from international cooperation to a territorial protective defense of blasting them out of the skies. 12,000 orbiting Skylink satellites seems like considerably a higher number than the 4900 Elon makes mention of that no one apparently notices but many actually see. Low orbit is the ideal space to laser then into orbiting spacejunk.

michaeljin's picture

We can only HOPE that one day there might be a truly free network for all of humanity to interact without the corruption of political censorship. The existence of such a resource would be the first step to shedding this primitive, tribal, notion of grouping ourselves as nation-states based on arbitrary geographical boundaries.

This obviously isn't that, but I fail to see any ACTUAL negative consequence here. Our serious research telescopes are in space where they belong. The only potential risk is increased objects to account for in future launches, but thats that's why you catalog everything.

The negative consequences as they pertain to this website amounts to a few salty astro photographers who would probably do better by worrying about the light and atmospheric pollution that will prevent them from seeing stars (or satellites) in the first place. Or are you going try to convince me that people looking at your photo of Joshua Tree can tell the difference between one tiny, nondescript, white dot in the sky and another? Get real. Someone could launch 100,000 satellites tomorrow and I doubt any astro photographer would notice a difference in their sky unless someone specifically pointed it out. Professional astronomers? Of course, but you're a picture taker, not a scientist.

Spy Black's picture

These may be problematic in that they decrease the signal to noise ratio in astrophotography. Stacking software compensates for it, but to play it safe just fire off some additional frames. Oddly enough I was just testing out my new tracker last night and in 50 frames I don't think I got a single satellite while shooting M101 near the meridian.

They will become a feature of the sky, just like the ISS is today. I have never heard anyone say, “That stupid ISS ruined my Milky Way shot! Now I won´t get the 10,000 likes I was going for. Kruthers!!!” OTOH, I have heard people say, “Look! I got the ISS in my shot! Bet I get 10,000 likes. Zowwie!!!”

(Okay, maybe those are not actual quotes, but my point still stands).