Effects of Large Satellite Constellations on Astronomy


Many of you’ll have seen the pictures again in 2019 which confirmed  lengthy ‘trains’ composed of as much as sixty SpaceX Starlink satellites crossing the sky in a straight line. These footage hit the headlines not solely as a result of of the quantity of satellites, however as a result of of their brightness.

A ‘train’ of SpaceX Starlink satellites, the satellites are round 300 km in altitude. In the times after launch these trains break up because the satellites place themselves into their closing orbits at round 550 km altitude.

The satellites are nonetheless being launched in batches of sixty at a time and their function  is to offer worldwide quick web protection. Traditional satellite tv for pc web operators have a small quantity of satellites in geostationary orbit (GEO), 35 800 km above the  Earth’s floor. This limits response instances, protection and bandwidth. It takes round 0.12 seconds for radio-waves to journey between the satellite tv for pc and the Earth.

SpaceX’s plan is to encompass the Earth with a big quantity of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This presents significantly better response instances and better capability than GEO satellites. The plan is that the community of Starlink satellites will develop over the subsequent few years forming a ‘floating internet backbone’, offering a quicker various to the fibreoptic cables that span the world.

Satellite constellations Rebuilding internet

At time of penning this publish,  SpaceX have launched 2282 Starlink satellites, all in orbits round 550 km above the Earth.  2062 of these satellites are nonetheless in orbit. (Most of the satellites launched in 2019 have been take a look at satellites which have been deliberately deorbited.)  They have been given approval by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch up to 12000 satellites  and  are searching for permission to place an extra 30 000 Starlink satellites into orbit.  To put these numbers into perspective, within the sixty 5 years for the reason that launch of Sputnik-1 again in 1957, practically 13 000 satellites have been positioned into Earth orbit, of which 5300 are nonetheless working. So round 40% of  functioning satellites are SpaceX Starlinks!

Satellite constellations satellites in orbit

Source  ESA

Other Operators

High speed satellite tv for pc broadband is prone to be an enormous development space sooner or later, as a result of it presents entry to web with out want for an costly fastened line infrastructure, which could be tough and really pricey to construct in distant areas.   By 2040, it may be worth in excess of 400 billion dollars per annum. So, it’s not shocking that different firms are planning comparable massive LEO satellite tv for pc constellations. Although none of these firms appear to have plans as bold as SpaceX or have launched as many satellites.


OneWeb are British firm partially owned by the UK authorities. They have constructed an preliminary constellation of 428 satellites, which can be expanded as demand for his or her service grows.

Satellite constellations OneWeb2

Unlike SpaceX Starlink, OneWeb are aiming their service to companies, governments  departments, cellphone community operators and different organisations moderately then particular person customers.

Amazon – Project Kuiper

Amazon plan to launch  a constellation of 3236 satellites. A growth referred to as mission Kuiper. As but no satellites have been launched, the primary launches are deliberate this year (2022). So they’re just a few years behind SpaceX, however they intend to be an enormous participant in a rising market and Amazon have huge monetary muscle.  In phrases of turnover Amazon is one of the biggest firms on our planet (2021 turnover was $470 billion) and in 2020 it was reported that Amazon would invest $10 billion in Project Kuiper.

Satellite constellations Amazon


The Canadian firm Telesat have a constellation of 298 LEO satellite tv for pc, which it plans to develop to round 1700 satellites within the close to future.

Satellite constellations Telesat

Impact on astronomy

There has been a lot written within the press in the previous few years concerning the impression of these satellite tv for pc constellations on astronomy (not all of  these studies have been correct). Compared to astronomical objects and satellites in increased orbits, LEO Satellites transfer quickly throughout the sky and are on the whole brighter than different satellites as a result of they’re nearer to Earth.

However LEO satellites spend most of the evening within the Earth’s shadow and are solely seen within the twilight hours. This is described additional within the video at the end of this post.

Satellite constellations LEO

A satellite tv for pc in a Low Earth orbit will spent roughly half of its orbit within the Earth’s shadow when it will likely be invisible to an observer as a result of it’s not illuminated by the Sun

Space X have been partaking with the astronomical group to scale back the brightness of the Starlink satellites. The  lengthy trains of satellites seen simply after launch are a short lived formation, which break up because the satellites disperse and transfer to their increased orbits 550 km above the Earth. All Starlink satellites launched since August 2020 have a visor fitted which reduces the quantity of daylight mirrored again to Earth by an element of three. A recent study discovered that the common magnitude of Starlink satellite tv for pc fitted with the visor was +5.92 – making them solely simply seen to the bare eye, when seen by somebody with good eyesight at a location with out vital mild air pollution.

In uncooked astronomical photos satellites are typically captured after they transfer throughout a telescope’s subject of view. They seem as streaks, trying a bit of like meteor trails. However, picture processing software program utilized by astronomers (together with amateurs) can establish satellite tv for pc tracks and strip them out of the ultimate photos.

This would possibly current extra of a difficulty if the quantity of LEO satellites have been to extend twenty-fold within the subsequent 15 years. Rather than a picture containing a single satellite tv for pc path, a typical picture taken within the twilight hours would include a number of trails, as quite a few satellites crossed the sector of view.

The massive telescope being constructed on the Vera Rubin observatory could also be notably badly affected. It has an 8.4 metre major mirror (giving it a really excessive sensitivity) and in addition a really massive detector giving it a really massive of view – so many satellites might be captured in its photos. This is a subject I mentioned in a previous post. 

LSST Rubin Observatory

Impact on radio astronomy

Radio astronomy is allotted protected bands by which radio transmitters, together with these on satellites, are forbidden to function. Examples of protected bands are

  • the area round 1.420 MHz referred to as ‘the 21-cm hydrogen line’
  • the area round 1.660 GHz the OH-line
  • the area round 22.235 GHz,  which is a frequency at which interstellar water vapour clouds emit radio waves.

However, radio astronomers typically take observations exterior the protected bands. They can do that as a result of massive radio telescope are sometimes located in radio quiet zones, usually in distant areas, the place there’s  very low amount of artifical radio transmissions. If, within the coming a long time, there are tens of hundreds of LEO satellites beaming highly effective radio transmission in any respect areas on Earth, then in future there could also be no radio quiet zones anyplace and plenty of frequencies exterior the protected bands might be closed to radio astronomy. This is a subject about which I may write an important deal about however, within the pursuits of protecting this publish at an affordable size ;-),  I’ll go away the ultimate phrase to Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory,  who mentioned in 2020.

SpaceX is legally transmitting inside one of their [allocated] bands and there are going to be impacts for anybody attempting to do radio astronomy,” ….”These spectrum allocations characterize the objectives and intent of society. We make [them] to allow commerce and to allow protection and every kind of actions. We have to come back to an answer that satisfies all these to some extent

And Finally……

It might be fascinating to see how issues develop over the subsequent decade and the way massive the impression on ground-based astronomy seems to be. Rather a lot will rely on willingness of the satellite tv for pc broadband firms to interact with the astronomical group. What is evident to me is that satellite tv for pc broadband  is prone to grow to be increasingly more necessary over the subsequent decade.

For these reader who need a bit of extra info I’ve made this video on the Explaining Science YouTube channel which expands some of these subjects additional

[embedded content]


When measuring the brightness of objects within the sky, astronomers use the magnitude scale the place the decrease the magnitude worth the brighter the item.  The scale was invented by the traditional Greek astronomers who labeled all of the stars seen to the bare eye into six magnitudes. The brightest stars got a  magnitude of 1, the subsequent brightest magnitude 2 and so on. The faintest stars seen to the naked-eye by somebody with good eyesight got a  magnitude of 6.

Values within the magnitude scale have been standardised  by nineteenth century astronomers  to make an enhance in magnitude of 5 a lower in luminosity of issue of 100. So for instance, a star of magnitude 6 seems 100 instances fainter than one of magnitude 1.  The brightest star within the  sky Sirius has magnitude -1.4. The first synthetic satellite tv for pc Sputnik had a magnitude of round 6 – making it nearly seen to the bare eye when seen at a location with out vital mild air pollution

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Shopping Cart