SpaceX’s Starlink mini internet satellites are already disrupting astronomical research, to the annoyance of astronomers. Researchers at a Chilean observatory found their work interrupted for about five minutes when a Starlink satellite train consisting of 60 satellites drifted through the area of sky they were photographing earlier this week. Astronomers are now saying that SpaceX’s plan for mega-constellations of these satellites could greatly hinder scientific research going forward.
Astronomers at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile were studying Megallanic Clouds as part of ongoing research into dwarf galaxies around the Milky Way. They were taking long exposures of the night sky using the DECam instrument, a high-performance, wide-field imager on the CTIO Blanco 4-meter telescope. Researchers say the train of satellites affected a significant portion of their photographs in the form of long white streaks across the images. Some of them had as much as 15 percent of the image distorted.
These satellite trains and their associated mega-constellations will soon become a regular fixture in the night sky. The Starlink satellites associated with this incident were launched into orbit on November 11 and SpaceX has already received approval from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch up to 12,000. In October, the company asked the FCC for permission to launch an additional 30,000 satellites by the mid-2020s.
The U.S. American Astronomical Society has issued a warning saying mega-constellations could be a threat to scientific observations of space. It calls for regulators, satellite providers, and astronomers to have a discussion to determine the best ways to minimize the satellites impacts to astronomy. SpaceX has already offered to tint the base of Starlink satellites black to reduce their brightness, but experts aren’t convinced that is a viable solution.