SpaceX tries to fix its bright­ness problem

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Chabeli Her­rera

They were seen sparkling across the skies of Mon­tana right around Christ­mas: a tidy row of lights that some mis­took to be UFOs. The glow­ing ce­les­tial train has been spot­ted in Cal­i­for­nia, Texas, in the Nether­lands and even Chile.

And it has as­tronomers wor­ried.

Be­cause the twin­kling lights are not stars, plan­ets or the faint ob­jects hunted by ob­ser­va­to­ries. They’re satel­lites, the first 120 in a con­stel­la­tion that could one day num­ber in the tens of thou­sands if ev­ery­thing goes as planned for SpaceX.

Elon Musk’s rocket com­pany made its en­trance into the telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions field this year with the first two launches — each with 60 satel­lites — of Star­link, satel­lites that en­deavor to blan­ket the globe in high-speed In­ter­net con­nec­tiv­ity.

The satel­lites have to be close to the planet, in lowEarth or­bit, to pro­vide a re­li­able, quick con­nec­tion — un­like typ­i­cal geo­sta­tion­ary satel­lites that or­bit the

planet thou­sands of miles from the sur­face and that ap­pear to be in a fixed spot. And there need to be thou­sands of them to cre­ate easy In­ter­net ac­ces­si­bil­ity even in the most re­mote ar­eas of the globe. So far, SpaceX has been ap­proved to launch about 12,000 Star­link satel­lites.

That has as­tronomers con­cerned the satel­lites will in­ter­fere with their data cal­cu­la­tions and pol­lute the night sky with ar­ti­fi­cial stars.

“What caught ev­ery­body off guard was just how bright the ini­tial launch was. It was pretty dra­matic,” said Jef­frey Hall, the direc­tor of the Low­ell Ob­ser­va­tory in Flagstaff, Ari­zona.

Hall, who is also a mem­ber of the Amer­i­can Astro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety, is among a group of sci­en­tists who have been work­ing with SpaceX for the past six months to find a so­lu­tion to the Star­link dilemma.

A launch planned for Fri­day from the Space Coast will test a pos­si­ble so­lu­tion. SpaceX will ex­per­i­ment with a non­re­flec­tive coat­ing on the bot­tom of one satel­lite in its next batch of 60, sched­uled to lift off from launch com­plex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Sta­tion at 10:14 p.m.

The Astro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety has had numer­ous con­ver­sa­tions with SpaceX since the first Star­link launch, on May 23, to dis­cuss how to make the satel­lites less in­tru­sive. Even now, at their op­er­at­ing al­ti­tude of about 550 kilo­me­ters, they are still right on the edge of vis­i­bil­ity to the un­aided eye.

But for re­search-grade tele­scopes? They’re “fe­ro­ciously bright,” Hall said. That means they’re get­ting in the way of data col­lec­tion, with the streaks of light ru­in­ing the sci­en­tific qual­ity of images.

In early De­cem­ber,

SpaceX Pres­i­dent and chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer Gwynne Shotwell said the com­pany didn’t an­tic­i­pate the problem but is de­ter­mined to cor­rect it, ac­cord­ing to a re­port in Space­News.

“We want to make sure we do the right thing to make sure lit­tle kids can look through their tele­scope,” Shotwell said. “Astronomy is one of the few things that gets lit­tle kids ex­cited about space.”

SpaceX isn’t yet sure if the coat­ing will work with­out af­fect­ing the per­for­mance of the satel­lite.

“It’ll be some trial and er­ror, but we’ll fix it,” Shotwell said.

The Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion re­cently ap­proved SpaceX to op­er­ate its satel­lites across 72 lanes around the Earth, in­stead of 24. The change could al­low SpaceX to reach full cov­er­age of the United States sooner. The com­pany is also seek­ing ap­proval to one day op­er­ate an ad­di­tional 30,000 satel­lites.

That has Hall and other mem­bers of the astro­nom­i­cal com­mu­nity look­ing to­ward the fu­ture. SpaceX’s con­stel­la­tion is ex­pected to be colos­sal, but it won’t be alone. Satel­lite man­u­fac­turer OneWeb, which has a fac­tory near Kennedy Space

Cen­ter, has said it has plans for launches of 30 satel­lites each, and Ama­zon has also ap­plied to launch its own con­stel­la­tion of more than 3,000 satel­lites.

That would mul­ti­ply the cur­rent num­ber of satel­lites on or­bit, about 2,000, a few times over.

“If you con­sider mul­ti­ple op­er­a­tors with fleets of 10,000 or 12,000 satel­lites, sud­denly you have a rad­i­cally trans­formed sky,” Hall said.

And while the ef­fort by SpaceX is “laud­able,” he said, to bring high-speed In­ter­net to the en­tire globe, it comes with con­se­quences at a time when the pri­va­ti­za­tion of space is re­ally find­ing its foot­ing and when the rules have not yet been firmed up.

“It’s kind of [the] Wild West up there right now,” Hall said.

SPACEX/TNS

As­tronomers say SpaceX’s satel­lites are so bright in the sky that they can in­ter­fere with sci­en­tists’ cal­cu­la­tions.

PETER KOMKA/AP

Star­link satel­lites are vis­i­ble in the sky near Sal­go­tar­jan, Hun­gary, on Nov. 25 in this long-ex­po­sure im­age.

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