The International Astronomical Union (IAU) released a statement this week showing concern for the coming waves of private organization launches of satellite constellations. A satellite constellation is a group of satellites all working together in a carefully organized grid. It’s like an extra sphere of stuff around our earth, in low-earth orbit, and it could get messy.
According to the IAU, until this year, the number of satellites in organized satellite constellations was less than 200. In the most recently available report from UNOOSA (reporting on the year 2017), it’s suggested that there were approximately 4,600 satellites in Earth’s orbit, and less than half of those were in operation.
Examples of satellite constellation programs mentioned by the IAU in the document this week:
• Iridium satellite constellation
• SpaceX’s Starlink
• Amazon’s Project Kuiper
• Facebook Athena
Perhaps the most vocal of groups that’s planning on (continuing) launching a satellite constellation is SpaceX. This isn’t the first time the company’s faced scrutiny over their launch of internet satellites in their Starlink program. Elon Musk said the Starlink satellites will have “0% impact on advancements in astronomy.”
The IAU voiced two concerns over the upcoming launch of massive amounts of satellites over the next several years. Reflections of the sun on satellite metal can be “detrimental to the sensitive capabilities of large ground-based astronomical telescopes,” wrote the IAU. And it’s not just light – with large numbers of satellites in the future, “aggregate radio signals emitted from the satellite constellations can still threaten astronomical observations at radio wavelengths.”
They acknowledged that “significant effort” was already put into “mitigating problems” with satellite constellations. They suggested that despite these efforts, they recommended “that all stakeholders in this new and largely unregulated frontier of space utilization work collaboratively to their mutual advantage.”
The IAU recommended that there be “regulatory framework to mitigate or eliminate the detrimental impacts on scientific exploration” by satellite constellations – as soon as possible. The IAU has a Commission B7 Protection of Existing and Potential Observatory Sites assigned to this case, and invited the world to collaborate on solutions for the future.