Amazon Constellation of Satellites Have Astronomers Worried

By The Biz Team (Nicholas)


The Federal Communications Commission recently approved Amazon's launching of 3,326 satellites, as part of the planned Kuiper constellation. Like Space X's Starlink and OneWeb's network, the goal is to extend high-speed internet service to customers around the globe. Obviously, that would make for a more crowded sky. Astronomers have pointed out their worries, since the microsatellites will be photo-bombing a lot of the astronomical observations in the night sky. Michael Bannister, one of the planetary astronomers at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, said they do not yet have any industry-wide guidelines, so it would be hard to police these endeavors. Good corporate citizenship is a key aspect of most large firms in other industries as a regulatory concept. He continued by comparing Amazon's endeavor to putting several planes in the sky without air traffic control in place.


The rapid increase of satellites into low earth orbit has led to push-back from amateur and professional astronomers. This is certainly not the first time satellite launch has been a cause for concern. Starlink satellites are known for hindering astronomical objects, and hobbyists from the community worry about the lack of regulation of the constellations, due to the increase of entrants like Project Kuiper.


The first group of Starlink satellites was launched in May of 2018, and several astronomers since have complained about their reflective glare. It is more noticeable when the satellites have been freshly deployed and moving to their operational orbits. During that time, they are well set to catch sunlight at the dawn and dusk periods, which is not good for astrophotos and telescopic observations taken from the ground. Effectively, it is the equivalent of the sun's glare in the eye of a driver. Unfortunately, Starlink has to be continuously replenished with new satellites, meaning light pollution will be a constant issue.


The satellites may bring the most problems for wide-field observatories surveying large regions of the night sky. The motion of the satellites through the frame may block observational targets or even overwhelm them with light. Astronomers can use software to remove satellite trails to some level, but it is not enough to completely fix the image.


Amazon states that, when launched, the network will give reliable and affordable broadband services to the underserved communities in the world. The FCC authorization would allow the firm to start work on the delivery of satellite-based broadband services in the country, through helping to expand access to the internet. The plans entail committing up to $10 billion to Project Kuiper Belt. Amazon indicates the objective is to deliver internet to particular households and educational institutions, businesses, and other organizations operating in areas without reliable broadband.


A similar program by SpaceX will start to offer internet services in the northern parts of the United States and Canada later during the year, with the firm planning to launch thousands of satellites to deliver broadband. Interestingly, it seems the space internet program is the latest battleground between Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Bezos has been funding Blue Origin, which is a rival to SpaceX to take people to space.


After years of battling for the right to launch military payloads for the government, SpaceX was given the Space Force contract for at least one launch in 2022. There would also be an undetermined number of missions between that time and 2026. Blue Origin did release a statement saying it was disappointed in the decision to go for the SpaceX Falcon Rockets over its New Glenn system. Bezos's firm also said they were proud of their BE-4 engine that powers the United Launch Alliances Vulcan launch vehicle to support the NSSL program. In any case, the rivalry between the two firms has spiraled on to the satellite scene.


The constellation from Amazon is going to have far fewer satellites than Starlink, though the array will be deployed to three orbits. They will be at a higher altitude compared to the SpaceX deployed network. Dr. Bannister indicated that some of the higher orbits look like they may be more problematic when it comes to astronomical imaging, considering the satellites will be visible for a longer time. However, it is not clear how light pollution coming from each of these constellations will compare.


Due to the increasing number of satellites in the sky, clutter is becoming a factor, and there is a bigger risk for crashes. Collisions between satellites would add to the hazardous orbital debris in the higher atmosphere, which causes even more hindrance to astronomical observation. Due to the orbital speeds of the debris, it becomes quite dangerous for incoming satellites as well. Unfortunately, the government's protocols are not keeping up with the increasing number of constellations in the sky. There was one incident as well, during which an earth observation craft, operated by the European Space Agency, had to increase thrusters and dodge a satellite from Starlink. It was not certain whether there would be a direct collision, but the trajectories did pose a threat; so the ESA decided the maneuver was needed.


The firms though, have taken these concerns seriously as representatives from SpaceX and Amazon have reportedly attended a workshop known as Satellite Constellations 1. SpaceX has also been experimenting with dark coating and sunshades for the Starlink satellites. meaning they are concerned about light pollution. Likewise, Amazon has implied a desire to work with astronomers toward a sustainable solution. Several astronomers and advocates are already seeking a strong regulatory approach. The decisions made in the coming years will affect the future of the sky, and astronomical observations for decades to come.


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