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Astronomers set up a new center to address issues raised by SpaceX and Amazon satellite networks

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This time-lapse image of Venus and the Pleiades shows the tracks of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites. (Torsten Hansen / IAU OAE / Creative Commons Attribution)

The International Astronomical Union is heading up the creation of a new center to deal with the complications created by broadband satellite constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

The IAU Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky From Satellite Constellation Interference will be co-hosted at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab in Arizona and the SKA Observatory’s offices at Jodrell Bank in Britain.

“The new center is an important step towards ensuring that technological advances do not inadvertently impede our study and enjoyment of the sky,” IAU President Debra Elmegreen said today in a news release.

Former IAU General Secretary Piero Benvenuti, the center’s director, said the memorandum of understanding creating the center was signed just a day earlier, and a website for the project hasn’t yet been established.

But the University of Washington’s Institute for Data Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology, or DIRAC, is already getting a head start on one of the center’s missions — cataloging astronomical images with satellite streaks so that they can be made available for analysis.

“This is just the start,” UW astronomer Meredith Rawls, who heads up the Trailblazer project, said during an online news briefing. “We need to go beyond professional observatory images and have other kinds of data repositories to include radio data and observations from amateurs. Even just DSLR photography can contribute to understanding the problem, because if we don’t have data, we can’t really take the next step to come up with solutions.”

The problem first rose to the surface in 2019 when SpaceX launched the first 60 satellites of its Starlink constellation, which is aimed at providing broadband internet access for billions of people around the world who are currently underserved.

Astronomers quickly noted that the satellites reflected sunlight and spoiled their observations. And even though SpaceX has since taken steps to reduce the satellites’ reflectivity, the problem persists.

The conflicts could become more acute as a new generation of astronomical facilities, such as the NSF’s $473 million Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, come online. DIRAC is due to play a key role in processing data from that observatory.

The rapid rise of satellite constellations will further complicate the issue. SpaceX has already launched more than 2,000 satellites for its Starlink network, and aims to have tens of thousands in orbit eventually. Another broadband venture, OneWeb, has launched almost 400 satellites and is gearing up for commercial service.

Amazon, meanwhile, has won regulatory approval for a 3,236-satellite Project Kuiper constellation, although none of those satellites has yet been sent into orbit. Still other ventures have filed the paperwork for additional constellations.

A time-lapse photo shows the streaks of Starlink satellites over Carson National Forest in New Mexico, photographed soon after launch. (Credit: M. Lewinsky / Creative Commons Attribution)

NOIRLab’s Connie Walker, who will be a co-director of the new center, said that if all the plans in the works come to pass, more than 5,000 satellites could be above the horizon at any given time by the end of the decade. Hundreds of those satellites would be visible each night as they go through orbit-raising maneuvers, she said.

“Astronomy is facing a watershed moment of increasing interference with observations, and loss of science,” she told reporters.

This week’s creation of the new center follows months of deliberation that involved astronomers as well as policymakers and industry representatives. The stage was set last year when scientists and other stakeholders laid out a set of recommendations in the wake of a virtual workshop.

Benvenuti said the center will officially begin operations on April 1. The center’s activities will be funded at first on a bootstrap basis by the IAU, NOIRLab and the SKA Observatory. “The initial budget is not a big one,” he said. But the organizers hope to raise additional funding from government agencies, academic sources and industry contributors.

Walker said the organizers are already talking with Amazon, OneWeb and SpaceX. “Each of those three companies has indicated quite strongly that they would like to work with us wholeheartedly and do as much as they can,” she said.

She acknowledged that mitigation efforts are limited by satellite designs and operational requirements. For example, OneWeb isn’t able to lower the orbits of its satellites, which could have reduced the time during which they can interfere with optical and radio observations.

“There are other mitigation solutions that they can do, such as lowering the brightness by coating their satellites when they can,” Walker said. “But they asked us in particular to do this before the design and launch of their satellites. So we have to work very closely with them as soon as we can. And it is better to make these agreements than to really go through regulations.”

Working with industry is just one of the center’s functions. Another objective is to provide data, analytical tools and training for researchers seeking to understand and mitigate the effects of satellite mega-constellations. Rawls is heading up that working group, or “hub.”

Two other hubs will focus on policy development and community engagement. On the policy side of the issue, the center intends to work with officials on the national level as well as with the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. And on the community engagement front, astronomers are collaborating with stakeholders ranging from photographers and tourism professionals to environmentalists and indigenous groups.

“While it is true that many rural and indigenous communities are in need of improved internet access, a service that satellite constellations may be able to help provide, this issue is much more complex,” said Jessica Heim, a cultural astronomy researcher who heads up the community engagement hub.

“The sky is a part of the environment, and Earth’s ecosystems can be affected by changes in the sky,” Heim said. “We concluded that it is essential for industry leadership, space actors and all constituencies to work together to co-create a shared ethical and sustainable approach to space.”

In that vein, Rawls said that the resources provided by the satellite data hub that she’ll be heading up, known as SatHub, would be made freely available to the public.

“This is not just a tool for astronomers,” she said. “It’s for sky observers of all kinds, data analysts, software developers, satellite industry experts, students — I want this to be the kind of resource that I wish I had when I started learning about this problem for the first time two years ago.”

How to help

In an email to GeekWire, Rawls provided further detail about the Trailblazer project:

“At the moment, Trailblazer has just a small test suite of images — although it feels like somebody emails me every week or two with more, or tweets about how they found some streaks in their recent observing run. Trailblazer will begin soliciting uploads (and/or connections to existing data archives, details TBD) of FITS images known to have satellite streaks from observers worldwide once we launch.

“If folks want to help, we can use two things in the short term: (1) software / Web developers with expertise in python / django who are interested to volunteer to help get our Web service up and running, and (2) establishing connections with astronomers who have many images they want to contribute so we are ready to support many telescope + camera combos up front. Well, and (3), more funding so I don’t have to ask for experienced volunteers.”

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