It’s No Longer a Constellation of Stars—Now It’s Satellites

Yuying Wang ‘23

For Elon Musk, it all started with a dream—a dream to build a constellation of thousands of satellites in space, providing high speed internet access to the world’s entire population. On November 11, 2019, that dream became a reality for Musk when his aerospace company, SpaceX, engineered the simultaneous launch of 60 satellites into space—their second batch of solar-powered satellites. However, the total of  120 satellites SpaceX has already roaming space, is dwarfed by the 12,000 satellites that Musk is hopes to launch by the end of 2020.


Musk, current CEO and chief engineer and designer, founded SpaceX in 2002 with visions to provide internet service to people around the world. This idea soon became an initiative, which soon soared to new heights, known as Starlink, a constellation of satellites, launched by SpaceX, providing internet accessible to everyone in the world. 


In May of 2019, the first set of 60 satellites left Earth, but when the second set was launched, Musk shocked the world, using Starlink to post a tweet, making his accomplishment viral. In other words, using the internet connection generated from Starlink, the constellation of satellites, Musk successfully sent out a message to the world. He simply exclaimed, “‘Whoa! It worked.’”


Prior to this event, various companies already had plans for establishing internet service from the satellites in space down to people on Earth, but it was not until Space Link actually implemented its satellites that many scientists and astronomers have voiced their opinions on how they might impact current astronomical projects. 


Specifically, Swinburne University astronomer Alan Duffy worries that “A full constellation of Starlink satellites will likely mean the end of Earth-based microwave-radio telescopes able to scan the heavens for faint radio objects.” This would pose a major risk to the future of astronomy, and the current capability to use advanced technology to detect outside objects. But, to take precautionary measures, they invited an experienced scientist, fellow astronomer, and professor at Smith College, Massachusetts, James Lowenthal, to provide monthly consultations and to express any concerns that might need immediate attention. 


In the same vein, SpaceX has been working with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a federally funded research center that operates facilities across the world, to jointly minimize potential impacts of Starlink satellites on radio wavelengths that astronomers use. Radio waves have been responsible for some of the major discoveries in the astronomy field, and that may all come to an end when there is a chance that satellites may interfere with these signals. 


Light pollution is also projected to worsen with the introduction of satellites—the satellites’ reflective surfaces will reflect the sun’s bright rays to Earth, and disrupt Earth’s natural cycles, such as avian migration, and especially during the night. However, they are yet to find a solution for light pollution. Lowenthal recalled feeling “as if life as an astronomer and a lover of the night sky would never be the same” just moments after seeing Musk’s satellites glide through the sky. 


As Lowenthal predicted, it may well be that one day, both stars and satellites will be scattered across the Milky Way.