SpaceX’s ambitious plan to send up 30,000 satellites for a second-generation Starlink network is facing opposition from some astronomers who want the FCC to hit pause on the request. “Please do not take the stars away from us. Starlink satellites need better engineering to make them fainter and to use fewer of them to provide service,” University of Regina Assistant Astronomy Professor Samantha Lawler wrote to the FCC last week.
Resistance to the second-generation Starlink network, which is still seeking clearance from the commission, has been growing in FCC regulatory filings. Usually, the filing system is used by companies such as SpaceX and its rivals to influence the FCC’s decsion to accept or deny a satellite application.
But now some astronomers are using the same system to weigh in, too. “Starlink satellites, and others, already routinely appear in wide field astronomical images, and the growth is clear,” Andy Lawrence, astronomy professor at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, wrote last month.
Lawrence has been a vocal critic of Starlink and other “mega” satellite constellations posing a threat to ground-based astronomy when there’s currently only over 5,400 satellites in Earth’s orbit. Last month, he went as far to create a guide on how anyone, including astronomers, can submit a filing to the FCC about the second-generation Starlink network. Since then, five other astronomers and physicists have sent letters to the FCC, urging the agency to pause or reject SpaceX’s 30,000-satellite plan.
The Astronomical Society of Edinburgh—where Lawrence is an honorary president— has also submitted a filing, urging the FCC to halt SpaceX’s plan until a full investigation can be done on the satellites’ potential impact to the planet.
“While broadband-for-all is a worthy ambition, there are other ways this could be achieved without destroying an important natural resource,” wrote the group, which spans 179 members and includes amateur astronomers. “In years to come we will regret what we do today if we don’t pause and think again.”
A map of the first-generation Starlink satellites in orbit, which currently number at over 3,100. The second-gen network would increase the scale by about ten times.
In her own filing, Carrie Nugent, a planetary science professor at Olin College, noted that most scientists are worried about Starlink satellites disrupting observations of near-Earth asteroids, citing a recent survey.
“I am concerned that these satellite launches will interfere with the vital task of near-Earth asteroid discovery, meaning we won’t have the warning we need to deflect an Earth-bound asteroid,” she told the FCC.
That said, not everyone in the astronomical community is necessarily against Starlink, which is designed to supply high-speed broadband to areas in a need. In an email to PCMag, Lawrence said, “most astronomers are very concerned (about the second-gen Starlink network), but they are quite divided in what to do about it.”
“Intrinsically most astronomers are space fans and internet geeks—we never expected to find ourselves conflicted by something like this,” he added.
Satellite trails, many of which are from Starlink satellites, crossing through the night sky over Australia in an astrophotography exposure.
So far, the International Astronomical Union—which is made up of 12,000 members—has responded to Starlink’s development by creating a center devoted to working with companies and governments in preventing mega satellite constellations from polluting the night skies. The goal is to “mitigate” the satellites from interfering with astronomical observations, rather than all-out opposition.
However, Lawrence hopes the astronomy community pursues both cooperation with SpaceX and applying public pressure on regulators to rein in the proposed satellite constellations.
“SpaceX have actually been very good at trying to work with some specific [observatory] projects, but only at the margins—not at the cost of considering ‘not doing it.’ Unfortunately this has led to a ‘don’t rock the boat’ attitude with some senior astronomers,” he added.
SpaceX did not respond to a request for comment. But in July, the company introduced several design improvements it’s making to Starlink satellites to prevent them reflecting sunlight while in orbit. SpaceX has also been urging the FCC to clear its request to launch the 30,000 satellites for the second-generation Starlink network, citing the benefits to bringing high-speed satellte broadband to all.
“The Gen2 constellation is now poised for deployment, ready to bring high-capacity, low-latency broadband services to consumers, businesses, and community anchor institutions across America and around the world,” the company told the FCC on Thursday. But aside from astronomers, SpaceX also has to contend with rival companies and environmental groups, which have also been calling on the FCC to amend, reject or further investigate the proposal for the second-generation Starlink network before granting approval.