Following the successful launch of its Starlink 6 batch of satellites last week, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted out a few details about night sky light pollution caused by these low Earth orbit satellites and the company’s plans to address this issue.
According to the tweet, SpaceX is taking ‘some key steps to reduce satellite brightness,’ something that Musk says should make them ‘much less noticeable during orbit raise.’ This change involves adjusting the solar panel angle, according to the tweet, plus there will be a new addition to the satellites starting with the Starlink 9 launch: sunshades.
It’s unclear how drastically these changes will reduce the brightness of its satellites, but the move underscores SpaceX’s efforts to address concerns about light pollution caused by these small satellites.
Thanks! We are taking some key steps to reduce satellite brightness btw. Should be much less noticeable during orbit raise by changing solar panel angle & all sats get sunshades starting with launch 9.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) April 22, 2020
The Starlink initiative aims to launch thousands of small low-Earth orbit satellites that will beam Internet service to the ground, providing high-speed broadband access in places where it’s unavailable from terrestrial providers, or where only slow and expensive options are available. Musk said in a tweet following the Starlink 6 launch that the company plans to start a private beta of the Starlink service in around three months.
Renewed attention to the issue of light pollution caused by low-Earth orbit satellites was spurred with the launch of NASA’s Satellite Streak Watcher project in early March. In explaining the reason for the initiative, the space agency said that the increasing number of these satellites launched into orbit makes things more difficult for astronomers on the ground.
Successful deployment of 60 Starlink satellites confirmed pic.twitter.com/h3e6QmKRue
— SpaceX (@SpaceX) April 22, 2020
The light pollution caused by these satellites is also a problem for astrophotographers, causing long streaks of light to appear in long-exposure images. Unlike avoiding light pollution from the ground, it’s not possible to head to a ‘dark sky reserve’ or other similar places to avoid light pollution originating from space.
SpaceX hasn’t been ignoring this problem; back in December 2019, the company said that it was experimenting with a new anti-reflective coating that would make the satellites less bright, though it may potentially result in satellite performance problems by causing thermal issues. Based on Musk’s most recent tweet, it seems the company is turning to sunshades as its solution.
With the Starlink 6 satellite launch last week, SpaceX now has 420 of these small satellites in orbit. The company plans to launch a minimum of 12,000 satellites over the coming months, though the figure may exceed 30,000 in the long run. A public beta of the Starlink service will start in the US and Canada in around six months following the private beta, according to Musk’s tweet. It’s still unclear how much the eventual Starlink Internet service will cost.