Stargazing could soon be a thing of the past as satellites clog up space

The downlink beams from internet satellites are also millions of times more powerful than the sensitive sources radio telescopes are trying to detect, which could hugely hinder or confuse the ability to detect signals from space.

In 2021, a signal that scientists first believed was the ground-breaking discovery of a gamma-ray burst from the oldest known galaxy in the universe, was in fact a reflection of sunlight from the remnants of a Russian Proton rocket.

Not only would the glut of satellites damage astronomy, but it could change the night sky forever, experts warn.

Scientists are also concerned about the sheer number of de-orbiting satellites.

Ken MacLeod, an independent expert in what happens to satellites after they stop being functional, has calculated that when all the internet constellations are operational there will be around 16,000 decaying internet satellites at any one time that will need to come out of orbit.

“They will cause re-entry fireballs,” he said. “If we really believe the numbers of how many are going to be falling, that’s about 60 every day and that’s much brighter than magnitude 7 (the faintest starlight visible with the naked eye) so they can cause problems with all those observations.”

Companies like SpaceX are now working to try and mitigate the issue, and are considering solutions such as black coatings or sun visors for their satellites.

So far none have proven effective and experts are calling for global regulation to limit numbers and make companies responsible for removing their old satellites from orbit once they stop working.

The twinkling canopy above our heads that has inspired so many is now under threat

by Sarah Knapton

The night sky is becoming dangerously overcrowded.

Hundreds of thousands of satellites are due for launch in the coming decades, with seemingly little thought given to the potential impacts.

This reckless saturation of space risks killing off ground-based astronomy, as well as destroying the gentle twinkling canopy above our heads which has inspired artists, musicians and philosophers for thousands of years.

But there are more reasons to be concerned.

In 1978, Nasa scientist Donald J Kessler predicted that when enough objects are in Low Earth Orbit, any collision would set off a catastrophic chain reaction which would send wreckage into the path of other satellites, breaking them apart and releasing more debris.

The subsequent swirling debris cloud of bullet-fast wreckage would make space inaccessible for everyone, and wipe out critical satellite systems.

“What happens is you get an exponential runaway where each little piece collides with another satellite which breaks up and each of its pieces,” Professor Tony Tyson, of the University of California, Davis, told delegates at a Dark and Quiet Skies Conference in London this week.

“And that lethal debris rises with time. It is clearly not sustainable.”

Constant battle to avoid crashes

Undoubtedly satellites are crucial for life today, allowing us to communicate and navigate over vast distances as well as monitor environmental issues and criminal activity. But their numbers are growing so quickly that it threatens those very systems that we rely on so heavily.

Kessler Syndrome is expected to kick in when there are between 40 to 50,000 satellites in orbit, and a recent US Department of Defense study predicted that above 40,000 satellites the chance of an exponential runaway effect is around 70 percent.

So it is more than a little concerning that internet providers alone are planning to launch 100,000 satellites in Low Earth Orbit in the next decade.

The numbers in SpaceX’s Starlink constellation would be enough on their own to spark Kessler Syndrome, and once the company’s Starship spacecraft becomes operational it will be able to launch 400 satellites at a time.

The US aerospace company Astra is expected to launch 13,620 satellites while China’s SatNet is proposing a 13,000-strong constellation.

Even today, with fewer than 10,000 satellites in orbit, companies face a constant battle to avoid crashes.

OneWeb, the satellite internet constellation which has 542 satellites in orbit, said trying to avoid space collisions was like playing the 1980s arcade game Frogger – in which users had to direct a frog across a busy road.

“That arcade game with the little frog, this is what we actually have to do in real life,” said Maurizio Vanotti, Vice President of Global New Markets at OneWeb.

“We get about 50,000 messages a day from the satellites, and from that, we extract about eight to 10 instances where we have to maneuver in order to avoid the potential risk of proximity and collisions.”


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