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Ep. 555: Satellite Constellations and the Future of Astronomy

Astronomy Cast

29:08 min | 1 year ago

Ep. 555: Satellite Constellations and the Future of Astronomy

"EPS Five fifty five satellite constellations Sion's futures from welcome to his strong castor wheaton fact space journey through the cosmos. We help you understand. Not only what we know but how you know what we know. Brazil Razer Cain publisher of University with me as always Dr Pamela Gate a senior scientist for the Planetary Science Institute and the Director of Cosmo quest and so again this week. We are at the American Astronomical Society Meeting and the other big issue that was hanging over the entire conference is the impact Ah Starlink and the various satellite constellations that are in the process of getting launched. There's already one hundred. Eighty satellites in space from Starlink making it the largest satellite provider in the world. And there's going to be thousands tens of thousands more satellites so starner's WanNa we know what was going to be the impact. What mitigation strategies are there? And what does the future look like. When there are tens of thousands of satellites orbiting the earth? What does it mean for astronomy? All right let's into the episode all right so so here. We are back at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Honolulu Hawaii and and we last episode. We talked about the big controversy of the construction of the thirty meter telescope. Here on the on the Hawaiian islands the Bit other big controversy. That's going on is of course. The starling constellation and literally just a couple of days ago. SPACEX launched launched the third batch of starling satellites another sixty satellites into space. And I it is safe to say. Hey that astronomers are outraged. I think that's an under Sabin. Yeah and there. There were three different arguments. Demint put forward and I have to admit at the top of this episode. I am somewhat biased. I desperately want to see the digital divide to be overcome and low cost Internet Internet to be available globally and Starlink promises. That and so a lot of what we're GONNA talk about. Today the issue comes down to whether or not you trust. Trust Elon. Musk to actually implement the low cost in the low cost Internet so the three arguments that we heard today against Starlink And one was a cultural problem of old but the children if you see satellite zipping around in the sky will people still fall in love with the stars. Will your experience visiting a dark sky site. Turn you off to astronomy if you see satellites and the cry of outrage. We heard was that people won't be inspired by the sky if they see manmade objects now I have to admit I distinctly remember exactly exactly where I was the first time I saw satellite. I I was up in the mountains of the caucuses camping beside a glacier and and I was sitting on a rock all by myself because being a teenager is hard and I was fifteen and sometimes you need to sit on a rock by yourself from your fifteen and and the satellite. I just saw something moving in the sky and I realized what it was and that realization of I'm alone on orrock beside a glacier but there's a satellite moving through my stars that at the age of fifteen was amazing moment and this idea that satellites make it impossible for people to fall in love with the stars. I I don't think that's the case. But it was one of the arguments arguments put forward and getting together to the second but but sort of like from a practical technical standpoint win. The starlings are first launched launched. They are actually very bright there about magnitude two or three which makes them easily visible to the unaided eye from many spots on the earth and they look like this train of moving across the sky. Call this this string of pearls and end and then as the starlings raise their altitude up to their final position of about five hundred fifty kilometers altitude the dimmed back to about a five magnitude which is at the very limits of the human. I can see in Nice dark dark skies and and but of course in the eyes of a of an astronomer that is incredibly bright. Eight of fifth magnitude star is very bright star in in the eyes of telescope and then the other problem is that when when when they pass across the sky they will really only be visible to astronomy when they are low on the on the horizon during the summer months. So when it's when the night is the longest the night is the shortest. You're going to get really. You're only going to be able to see these satellite right. Aided the right after twilight and right before sunrise. And and that's it you have to be and then for the for the rest of the night there won't be any satellites delights but as the nights get longer the satellites get brighter over C- over the entire night sky and so they're anticipating baiting that over some of the the big observatories in Chile and in the Northern Hemisphere. When you're in the middle of the longest nights you're gonNA see these? These satellites run across the entire sky. So so there's no question that these are going to be very bright objects that are going to move through your field of view and I leave streaks and one of the things that people keep bringing up is there's already thousands of pieces of stuff. There's eighteen thousand thousand tracked pieces that you can pull from the database right now. Eighteen thousand seven. I think you can pull from the database and you can track the position using celestis and other other things like that. Yeah so there you know we know and to adding another twelve hundred. which is the goal for link? So so let's narrow this down even further so there's eighteen thousand things up there. Prior to the launch of Starlink only two hundred objects were naked eye visible. So Oh you can only look up two hundred different things in heavens above and go outside and see them with the unaided eye with Starlink. They're adding well over for a thousand by the end of this year to the list of things that will be visible to the unaided eye and its brightness that is really the problem. I was an observational astronomer. For a number of years before realizing I am the rain God in those years years that are as an observational astronomer. I had myriad satellites go through my images but because they were low brightness objects there'd there'd be the straight line of pixels that well I couldn't see stars in but that line was the size on the sky. I that the satellite was on the sky. We starlink what's happening is these well captured. photons that are reflected off of the satellite delight. There are so many of them that they saturate the pill pixels spill over to adjacent pixels wiping out a larger swath of your detector than the satellite alone would wipe out. And when you saturate a pixel that saturation can cause the next. Several images to have ghosts hosts of that satellites passage still visible so not only. Are you wiping out. A larger percentage of pixels with that satellite but you're wiping them out across multiple images. Yeah and and so you know a lot of these these these satellites as they pass the field of view view can overwhelm the sensor and essentially make an entire observing frame worthless and the speed that they're moving is of great concern into these dreamers as they as they move through it's about. How quickly is this thing moving through your field of view? And how long do you have to not be able to take data data while this while the satellite is is moving through so so they're they're quite concerned just about overall in the time domain as well and of course the the big observatory that's going to be the most effective is the newly renamed. That's a different controversial. I know that's like a third the Third Controversy Jersey. We won't get into that but the newly but we. I think we can all agree. That the Vera Rubin Observatory is a wonderful Navarine Observatory and that is going to be the. That's that's going to be the facility that's going to be deeply affected because it just is staring wide eyed at the sky for all all night capturing as much as they can as deeply as a canon so every frame is GonNa have starlings and one ebbs and all this past them and this is this this is a problem of because it has a giant field of you. The probability that there's going to be a Starlink in any one image goes up if you have a small field of view. There's the potential that you can time your images to avoid having star Lincoln them but because this is a huge field of view. You your ability to do. That is greatly reduced. And they're going to end up picking up. STARLA starlings left and right and here's a question starts to become one of mitigation so folks are working with spacex to see okay. What do we need to do to reduce the brightness of these objects so that they aren't blowing out the detectors? Yeah there's more than that so so Someone from spacex actually gave a presentation this morning and that was actually a bit of a surprise and they didn't do a very good job of letting us know that this is is going to happen. There weren't a lot of people we have the whole ballroom and there wasn't a lot of people they're listening to her her talk. They mentioned essentially a couple of mediation strategy. So the first first thing is with this first launch they have. They've applied some darkening materials to one of the sixty satellites to see if the some of their ideas to make them to have a lower Albedo lower flexibility. And before you laugh at the fact that it's only one the thing you have to take into mind mind is these suckers were already largely built in preparation and turning around and re fabricating that takes time and so my suspicion. My hope is that that they were only able to fabricate one with the new materials fast enough to be able to test and I think it's you know. No this is how you perform an experiment right. Is You you isolate. The variable does putting all this material on one of the satellites make darker than the rest and and we'll find out what happened happens so so that's the first thing they did is experimenting and and this is a good sign. I mean this is like literally. This is the first time I think that any satellite constellation Elation has ever had a conversation with Strana mors and said what can we do to minimize our impact on your science. I don't there's you know the two hundred others others that we mentioned plus all the eighteen thousand. No one's ever tried to make them not bright in the eyes of strimmers so till the first strategy is to try at a paint them so there will be the second thing is to provide an open source real time. Location of all of the satellites in the Constellation and to communicate with the other networks. And anyone out there. Who is who is going to be relying on knowing the position? These starlink so in theory as the as the Constellation gets built your of your telescope operator. You're going to know when a Starlink is going to be passing through your detector and you'll be able to shut detector down. Wait for the starling. Pass opened the doctor again. And continue to get your to get your data so you won't necessarily get that that if you've got a very precise amount of time you'd be able to use it carefully. Navigating around satellite as coming by the other thing is they're going to provide a very specific and I forget what the technical term was but essentially the the launch trajectory of each new constellation as they go up so when that first trail is starting to head off into space and it is going to cause horrible streaks in any telescope any amateur Astra photographer is going to get this as well. They're going to sit there. You're going to know when that when Constellation is going to be passing through where it's going to be just to to plan your observing observing time around those starlink launches and it only you know it's only a few months or really. It's only a few days a week that they're in this trail l. and these are the spread out and shift themselves to that higher orbit but but the second problem that we're talking about one of the additional parts to to this is well so far SPACEX has been extraordinarily in in terms of trying to build a relationship saying look yes. We're going to work with you. Here's all ways we're going to work with you. SPACEX is just one of a myriad of companies looking to do this and so is China when they start launching their constellations. Are they going to do the same thing with open source abilities to track. Did you know that China launched more rockets last year than than the United States. Yes yeah so so like this is like whatever happens starling. There will be a Chinese version of Star Lake. And what is going to happen with all the other companies looking to do this because you know spacex is doing doing this. It's just a matter of time before we see the same coming from Amazon and wealth from everyone else so while things so far. You're if you're willing to trust that they will do what they say. And this is a sticking point for a lot of people I understand. While it's promising. Promising for SPACEX. We don't know what the future will hold and this is honestly terrifying to a lot of people. Yeah Yeah there's a lot of really bad people because they're anticipating thing and it's an enemy it is so interesting and I hope you're already starting to kind of Echo. The previous conversation that had had it is completely flipped around. You've got astronomers who have this resource of the the night sky that they're using to gather data data it is it is sacred to them. And you have someone coming in and the Internet over the the Internet wanting to take wanting to utilize this resource and the astronomers being being concerned and wanting more dialogue and wanting to have their concerns taken very seriously so obviously the the whole irony of the situation is not lost using the same word they really. Are they making a purely emotional arguments saying but this is our cultural heritage this sacred to us. It's the exact same argument it absolutely is and so you can see the same. The same method for being able to resolve. What's happening with Hawaii is going to be the same method? It's GONNA be resolved there. There was a couple of other really interesting things. One is the the sort of the opportunity to be able to resolve this like like with regulation. That ship has sailed that horses out of the Barn and in fact the people who are who are the astronomers who are working with spaces eighty six on this have said right now there. There is no regulation option to be able to stop space x from doing what they're doing to stop these. The the only one issue which was that In the radio spectrum. And this is the third prob right okay so in the radio spectrum There was a very specific set of the radio spectrum that the the astronomers authority that the satellite constellations aren't allowed to use. It's this three hundred. Two hundred and fifty megahertz and it accounts for about one eighth of the spectrum that these these constellations are able to use and they were able to get them to see that part of the spectrum actress for radio astronomy which has already sort of partly been defined by by regulation so they were able to ratchet that back in. So you've got this part of the spectrum which originally the satellite constellations us and they have agreed to not use in order to continue eighteen protecting that spectrum. I Ronnie and this gets back to the relationship issue because one of the things that we heard over and over was but they haven't turned on the satellites and we don't trust alum to have actually done what they said so there's a lot of fear right now because there isn't the relationship that these constellations installations aren't going to do what they promised and are instead going to do as the iridium satellites did and just stomp all over the astronomical protected parts of the radio a spectrum and so again these two problems completely parallel parallel each other. Where because there's a lack of trust because there is a lack of of relationship the communications companies are saying? We're just trying to get Internet to remote parts of the world. The people and the astronomers are saying. We don't trust you and could you could have at least told us what your plans were. And we could have worked with you over years to come up with strategies and use all that engineering capability that you have to minimize the impact on both the night sky for everybody and because I mean I think that yeah we've lucked out with this batch right. Yes you go outside in almost any circumstance you will not be able to see starlings airlinks like. They're not going to be this grid of dots in the sky that you're going to see and it is going to Besmirch your vision of the heavens but as as we enter the space age and we get our You know and and we get our gigantic rotating space stations. We'll get our we're going to this guy and you're going to lose the sky. Yeah it is and so that is the downside. The downside of that Star Trek future is watching starship a banner prize shine brightly in the night sky. While you're just trying to watch the meteor shower as the enterprise flies overhead and I'm kind of okay with and but but what we're saying is a lot of this comes down to people are currently afraid and fear isn't facts facts so when you hear people with both Monica as we talked about in the last episode and Starling as we're talking about today saying saying but we don't trust but we are concerned that this is sacred to us. What you're hearing is one group if if people who just want to try something new amazing advanced society and another group of saying but we don't care about your advancements we're happy the way we are please go away and we need to build relationships if we do want to move forward so that we can move forward together and sometimes be able to say? I don't agree with you. Yeah Yeah but we've talked this out and you've heard what I have to say so I'm GonNa sit down and support you and this is something that comes out of the software community. Allot you hash. Everything out figure out how you're going to move forward. You have all the disagreements but once you come to that conclusion you support the path forward forward but you have to have the relationship. Yeah let's let's. Let's work on building the relationships. Yeah I think I mean obviously the the the position that I've had For quite a while is is it is it is now inevitable that everyone on earth is going to want access to the Internet it. It is the way that we as human beings will connect and so then the question is what is the way. Are we going to build millions another five million cell towers around the world and it will take more than five million more cell towers to to complete the last mile to get everybody online. Or How many cell towers to win. WanNa go with five G.. What is the impact on on a story is that he has five G. Five G.? What's back to five G. on I mean it looks like those are actually pretty serious transmission power and and? We don't know whether it's going to do. They're radically eight weather. Yeah the sound strikes on and on there are millions of birds that hit cell towers right right and and beyond that just the fact that it is cost prohibitive to run fiber optics tech's to all the little islands of the world to run the wires to every rural village in well Canada. Yeah you gotTa Lay cable through sensitive that of marine environments. You've got a big big long fiber optic tunnels through permafrost through. It's madness to to consider under the engineering to planet Earth. It'll be required to provide the same level of Internet access that that these satellite constellations installations are going to provide and one thing that we did talk about a bit is is that there's GonNa be multiple constellations. There's not just Starlink. There's the one from Amazon one in web has already launched six satellites. The one web ones are at an altitude of twelve hundred kilometers and they are visible for the entire pass through the field of you. There's no time that they're not visible. They're always visible but they're dimmer because they're farther so they're only eighth magnitude but which is still highly bright in in any telescope and there's going to be more those and as you said the Chinese ones there's the there's the Amazon Amazon is planning three thousand plus satellites when one of the phrases that was used today is this is an existential crisis. Yeah do we protect the skies at the cost of our environment as we lay new communications lines in towers across the world to we sacrifice the astronomy to erase the digital divide. We find a way to maybe compromise compromised both in protect a few places. There are after all places and I believe. It's Virginia where you can't use a cell phone because of the radio quiet zone there are compromises but they require relationships. Yeah and and with one hundred and fifty dark sky preserves around the world the account for one hundred thousand thousand square kilometers of space in twenty different countries. The you can go to and you can see the Milky Way you can see the night sky in a way that that the vast majority of humanity will never see it and if we lose those spaces we will lose that connection to the night sky with light pollution and peeks into every single corner of of of planet Earth. And there's no place you can go to see the sky as it's meant to be seen that will be an absolute shame and I really hope that we can figure out some kind of compromise that allows us to continue enjoying the sky. Continue to you do science but also be able to connect people around the world and and and I don't think anyone knows the solution yet. One one quick additional comment I know people are asking about this idea of painting. The the satellites black or use Bantu black or stealth technologies and someone actually brought this up in conversation. Komo in the press conferences and they were saying that that in fact The problem is is that if you paint the telescope black. It now radiate in the infrared ed so the visible astronomers have an easier time with the night sky but now the infrared astronomers have a worst time and of course this whole time. The radio astronomers have just screaming in pain from the From shouting telescopes. So it's it's it's it's GonNa be a thorny issue and I sort of wish we had started could conversation nation ten years ago as opposed to now as these constellations are going up one after the other and this is really a case that has brought about because the astronomers were off offseting doing their Strana me quite happily not worried about. How do you get the Internet to the rest of the world whereas the communications companies is that well make their money off of? How do we get more people on the Internet? They were thinking through this. and Dr Phil Metzker is someone who's actually done some interesting writing on this and just points out that this is a necessary step in the communications Haitians Infrastructure of building society in the future. We will probably figure out how to do things that are lower latency. Which means there's there's less lag? Time between the two between sending and receiving the signals that they can be handled in a different way than just sticking satellites in low enough orbits to drop the latency. Well also not having huge power choir minutes. We're not there yet. And so this is a temporary temporary step and we don't know what the future is going to be can be bright. Yeah well it's going to be polluted. So so here's the thing though you'll still be able to see the Milky Way. These aren't providing the kind of light pollution that a city provides this. This is the kind of light pollution of you're looking at the Milky Way and it's like there's an airplane dashing across it except it's moving much faster and isn't as bright as an airplane airplane so if you can imagine if you've ever gone camping someplace that isn't dark sky preserve. That doesn't have air traffic above it if you've ever gone out to a farm if you've ever gone out to yellowstone you can see the Milky Way and then you also see all the air traffic that's what we're looking to is. It's going to be like a lot more air traffic but you can buy still see all the faint things if you're trying to take images you're doomed. It's the people who are imagers that are doomed. Yep Yeah I mean I already have to throw away so many frames from Astra photos. I can't imagine how how where this is going to go. Oh next all right well so I hope that gives everyone the update which is the Starlink marches on astronomy. Astronomers are continue you to be outraged and we will continue this conversation over time as more and more of these satellites go up and more. Hopefully mitigation in strategies are are figured out. Well thanks Pamela. It was Super Fun to you as always hanging out with you in person here in in one of these American Astronomical Normal Society meetings. It's been ten years since I've been to one. I don't how recent spin a few years for me as well. Yeah this is an important one. But I hope people enjoy all of the content that we've been streaming bringing back and who knows maybe we'll go on to the next one and he didn't do it so I will his guide to space and and question answer shows are about to have a flood of amazing content. So check this out if you haven't already and if you want to hear more about the news that has come out this week. Take check out the daily space that we're putting out with cosmic quest all right and we'll see you next week. We will see all next week by thank. Thank you for listening to. Astronomy cast a nonprofit resource provided by the Planetary Science Institute Frazier Kane and Dr Pamela Gay. You confined show notes and transcripts for every episode at astronomy cast. You can email us at info at astronomy cast dot com tweet us at Astronomy Onomichi cast like us on facebook and watch us on YouTube. We record our show live on youtube every Friday at three PM Eastern twelve. PM Pacific Acidic or nineteen hundred ut. See Our intra. Music was provided by David. Joseph Wesley the ultra music is by Travis. Searle and the show was edited by Susie Murph.

Starlink SPACEX Planetary Science Institute American Astronomical Society WanNa China Honolulu Hawaii YouTube Chile Amazon Brazil Star Lake Dr Pamela Gate Amazon American Astronomical Normal S Razer Cain Demint