As if Elon Musk needs yet another reason for people to hate his guts, here’s one more that has nothing to do with Teslas, Mars, cave rescues, politics or the dangers of artificial intelligence. Beginning in January, Musk’s SpaceX will conduct regularly-scheduled launches of batches of 60 communications satellites at a time, with a goal of about 1500 by the end of the year, joining the two batches of 60 launched in 2019. Those two raised the ire of astronomers and star-gazers – especially the second batch which are in a low 280 km orbit and clearly visible in the night sky. (Video here and here.) If astronomers think 60 is bad and 1,500 is worse, SpaceX already has approval for a total of 12,000 satellites and has filed paperwork to launch 30,000 more. THIRTY-THOUSAND! No wonder they’re angry.
“These satellites are about the size of a table, but they're very reflective, and their panels reflect lots of the Sun's light, which means that we can see them in images that we take with telescopes. These satellites are also big radiowave users… and that means they can interfere with the signals that astronomers using. So it also affects radio astronomy as well."
Dhara Patel, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, vented disdain to the BBC. Dr. Dave Clements, an astrophysicist from Imperial College London, explained that the moving satellites will mess with telescopes that are taking large surveys of the sky, comparing it to “like someone's walking around firing a flashbulb every now and again." The bright lights will also hide anything and everything behind them “whether that's a nearby potentially hazardous asteroid or the most distant Quasar in the Universe."
Musk’s mayhem in the midnight sky is already causing problems for ufologists. On December 23rd, a number of people in northern Italy reported seeing a line of at least 25 UFOs. Dr. Jen Golbeck of the Italian astronomical observatory actually sounded excited when she tweeted the explanation for the UFOs:
If you saw a row of UFO like lights in the sky in IL, IA, MI (like this but spaced out), that was SpaceX Starlink Satellites! You'll be able to see them in the next few days, too!
Check here for a map (and set the time back to see their track today)
Who will win this fight for the skies? SpaceX claims it is working on a special coating to make the satellites less reflective, although less is still more when you’re talking 42,000 satellites. The UK company OneWeb is looking to put as many as 2,000 satellites in orbit. While touting its work with astronomers to minimize their influence on the skies, Ruth Pritchard-Kelly, vice president of OneWeb, may have given the best answer to the “Who will win?” question:
"There is no question that the entire world is entitled to be connected to the internet…. So it's going to happen. And probably three or four of these systems are going to happen."
So … it’s going to happen. Perhaps Musk can make peace with astronomers by giving them and their telescopes a free trip to nearly-satellite-free Mars.