How Will Amazon’s Planned Satellite Megaconstellation Impact the Night Sky?

The company plans to launch 3,236 satellites, but astronomers are worried about possible ramifications

A dark blue night sky, with pinpricks of stars and long streaks where the satellite traveled through the shot
US satellite SpaceX Starlink 5 is seen in the night passing above Denmark, on April 21, 2020. Photo by Mads Claus Rasmussen / Ritzau Scanpix / AFP

Amazon received approval from the Federal Communications Commission last month to launch 3,236 satellites into low-Earth orbit, in a plan to provide high-speed internet service around the world. Under the proposed plan, Amazon would need to launch half of its satellite “megaconstellation,” named Project Kuiper, by 2026 and must complete the project by 2029, reports Caleb Henry for Space News.

Currently, about 2,600 satellites orbit Earth, but that number will likely increase rapidly in the next few years. Like Amazon, the space travel company SpaceX aims to expand internet services to remote areas around the world via its Starlink satellite constellation. The company has already launched hundreds of satellites into orbit and could send up more than 12,000 additional ones in the coming years, reports Becky Ferreira for the New York Times.

Other companies, such as the British company OneWeb, might also enter the arena—although its future is uncertain after the company filed for bankruptcy, as Jon Brodkin reported for Ars Technica in March.

As the Times reports, this planned increase in low-flying satellites has astronomers concerned about the future of Earth’s orbital environment. For one, more satellites in orbit means more opportunities for collisions. Currently, operators conduct about three “collision avoidance maneuvers” per day, but experts estimate that number could increase to about eight avoidances per hour as more satellites enter into orbit, as Jonathan O’Callaghan reported for Scientific American last fall.

Collisions can create clouds of dangerous debris, that could potentially trigger chain reactions of collisions between other spacecraft and make it difficult to operate other equipment, O’Callaghan reports for Forbes. As a condition of its approval, Amazon will need to provide a “debris mitigation plan” to the FCC after it finalizes its spacecraft design, reports Space News.

Satellites are also extremely bright—sometimes as bright as Polaris, the North Star—which could impede our view of the night sky. As O’Callaghan reports for Forbes, Amazon has yet to disclose how bright their satellites will be.

When SpaceX launched their first batch of Starlink satellites, they were met with an outcry from amateur and professional astronomers, who noted that the satellites were creating bright streaks in their images. In May, the company responded by designing a shield for satellites to block light from hitting their highly reflective antennas, as well as tilting the crafts so that they reflect less sunlight back to the ground, reported Shannon Hall for the New York Times at the time.

Still, as Brian Resnick reported for Vox in January, some projections estimate that tens of thousands of satellites will enter Earth’s orbit in the coming years. These bright satellites could easily outnumber the roughly 9,000 stars visible from the ground. Resnick writes that satellites are not “light pollution” so much as “sky pollution,” because they are visible from anywhere on Earth and show up more brightly in the darkest of skies.

Radio frequencies emitted from satellites can also interfere with radio astronomy efforts on Earth, Hall reports.

“There’s no doubt that the astronomical community can still do science with the presence of those constellations, but it’s a burden,” Julien H. Girard, a scientist at Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute, tells the Ferreira for the Times.

Experts say that very few official regulations for low-flying satellites exist.

“We don’t yet have any kind of industrywide guidelines,” Michele Bannister, an astronomer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, tells Ferreira at the Times. “We don’t have an industry body that’s producing good corporate citizenship on the part of all of these enthusiastic companies that want to launch, and we don’t have any regulatory setup in place that’s providing clear guidelines back to the industry.”

Adds Bannister: “To me, honestly, it feels like putting a bunch of planes up and then not having air traffic control.”

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