- SpaceX recently launched NASA astronauts to the International Space Station in the first-ever crewed commercial spaceflight.
- But Elon Musk has not slowed down the company’s other projects: SpaceX is set to launch three batches of Starlink satellites this month.
- The project aims to blanket the planet in high-speed, affordable internet via a fleet of up to 42,000 satellites.
- Scientists have warned that Starlink could interfere with astronomical research, however, so future Starlink satellites will feature visors to reduce how bright they appear in the sky.
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SpaceX is launching another batch of broadband internet satellites into orbit this week, while the company’s new spaceship sits docked to the International Space Station.
The upcoming launch is part of the Starlink project, Elon Musk’s plan to blanket the Earth in high-speed satellite internet. Despite a few bumps so far — including astronomers’ fears that the satellites could interfere with telescopes on Earth — Starlink is plowing ahead.
SpaceX is planning three internet-satellite launches within 18 days in June; the first happened on June 4, and this will be the second. With the historic astronaut launch the company accomplished on May 30, that’s four rocket launches in less than four weeks — a feat that would have been almost impossible to imagine a few years ago.
The next batch of Starlink satellites will careen into space atop the same type of Falcon 9 rocket that SpaceX used to launch NASA astronauts in its Crew Dragon spaceship.
The rocket’s booster is designed to be reusable — it returns to Earth after detaching during the launch process and self-lands either on a drone ship at sea or on a launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
The next batch of 60 Starlink satellites, which is scheduled to launch at 5:21 a.m. ET on Saturday, will join about 480 others that the company has sent into orbit since February 2018.
SpaceX has sought government permission to put a total of 42,000 satellites into orbit, forming a “megaconstellation” around the Earth. Musk has said he hopes Starlink will get rural and remote regions of Earth online with affordable, high-speed web access.
But already, the reflective satellites have appeared as bright, moving trails in the night sky that can photobomb astronomers’ telescope observations and blot out the stars.
“If there are lots and lots of bright moving objects in the sky, it tremendously complicates our job,” astronomer James Lowenthal told the New York Times in November. “It potentially threatens the science of astronomy itself.”
‘It will look as if the whole sky is crawling with stars’
Musk has suggested that SpaceX would send up batches of Starlink satellites every two weeks throughout 2020, for a total of 1,400 by the end of the year. But Friday’s launch will only be the ninth since Starlink began two years ago. The company appears to be picking up the pace this month, however, with a total of 180 satellites between its three launches.
After SpaceX launched its first set of Starlink satellites, many astronomers were alarmed by how bright the new objects were. In the days following the launch, people across the world spotted the train of satellites, like a line of twinkling stars.
“I felt as if life as an astronomer and a lover of the night sky would never be the same,” Lowenthal said.
If SpaceX launches thousands more satellites, “it will look as if the whole sky is crawling with stars,” he added.
That’s a challenge for telescopes on Earth that look for distant, dim objects. Picking up these false stars could mess with astronomers’ data, since a single satellite could create a long streak of light across a telescope’s long-exposure images of the sky. That might block the view of the objects astronomers want to study.
Future Starlink satellites might get sun-blocking visors
SpaceX has been in conversation with astronomical associations about reducing its satellites’ effect on Earth’s telescopes.
The Starlink batch that launched on June 4 included a satellite with built-in visors to block the sun’s reflection. SpaceX has said that starting with one of its next June launches, all satellites will have those visors going forward.
SpaceX has also launched an experimental satellite painted black to reduce the amount of light it reflects — that change reduced the satellite’s brightness by 55%. However, neither black paint nor a visor will stop the satellites’ radio waves from interfering with telescopes.
SpaceX aims to finish the entire Starlink project in 2027. If the network does wind up with 42,000 satellites, it would have launched more than eight times the total number of satellites in orbit today.
Adding that much more material to Earth’s orbit could increase the risk of space collisions. In the worst-case scenario, too many such crashes in a series could turn the region into a minefield of debris, creating a spiraling space-junk disaster that could cut off our ability to leave Earth.
Already, a near-collision with a Starlink satellite forced the European Space Agency to maneuver its own spacecraft out of the way last year.
To avoid leaving dead spacecraft in orbit (thereby contributing to the accumulation of space junk and increasing risk of collisions), SpaceX has said its satellites will automatically deorbit at the end of their lifespans.
The company appeared to be testing the deorbiting mechanism when one of its satellites fell into Earth’s atmosphere and burned up in February, according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell.
After SpaceX launches at least 500 more satellites, the company plans to boot up Starlink, then build toward a floating internet backbone that would bathe most of the planet in ultra-high-speed web access.
“For the system to be economically viable, it’s really on the order of 1,000 satellites,” Musk said in May 2019, “which is obviously a lot of satellites, but it’s way less than 10,000 or 12,000.”
After this batch, the next Starlink launch is scheduled for June 22.