How much is too much? Scientists look at growing number of satellites in low Earth orbit

Scientists look at growing number of satellites in low Earth orbit
Posted at 4:13 PM, May 05, 2022

SpaceX has launched thousands of satellites into orbit to provide high-speed internet access over the past few years. Companies like OneWeb and Amazon are doing the same.

Research is now being done to look at the impacts these satellites have.

“This is our telescope control software,” Tanner Campbell, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, said.

Using telescopes, researchers can monitor the stars and satellites in our sky. “This guy right here is a satellite,” Campbell said, pointing to the screen.

It’s an important task, Vishnu Reddy said, as more and more satellites are launched into low Earth orbit – also known as LEO. Reddy is a planetary science professor.

“Imagine since the first Model T rolled off the assembly line, and every time the car runs out of gas, you leave it next to the freeway and pick up a new car. That’s what we’ve been doing to outer space,” Reddy said. “We have a problem with space traffic management.”

“It all started in 1957 with one satellite up there. Now in the last few years, just about the time Starlink launched their 60, maybe there were 2,200, and that was it. We have now, in two, two and a half years, we have more than doubled that,” Connie Walker, the co-director of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference, said. She is also part of the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab.

Statistics from the Union of Concerned Scientists database show from the end of 2021, 4,078 satellites were in Earth’s low orbit. That number increases with each launch, and more and more companies are expressing interest in launching satellites for things like communication, banking, and high-speed internet access.

“You’ll see that every month,” Walker said.

The new center, created this year and co-directed by Walker, will focus on working with all of the players in space and researching the impacts of satellites in our sky. One impact is how they can interfere with scientific observation and data.

“Many observatories do long exposures, so when you have long exposures, they’re going to be very affected by satellite constellations,” Walker explained.

They could also impact observatories monitoring for dangers.

“A prime example of this is the projects that they’re using for the potentially hazardous asteroids,” Walker said.

But Reddy said possible solutions are being researched.

“You can come up with a mitigation scenario where you can close your shutter on your telescope just when the predicted object is going to come through the field of view, and then you can reopen it when it’s gone so that way you don’t ruin the picture,” he said.

And then there’s the environmental aspect. Thousands of pieces floating around Earth. The more pieces, the more chances of collision and chain reactions.

“There's an environmental aspect of it, and there's a national security aspect of it,” Reddy said.

Walker said there’s also a possible impact on the beauty of space, the reflective pieces in orbit causing light pollution, and the effect that could have on our culture. Experts say it’s all about finding balance before too much in space.

“It’s going to be really hard to stop commercial companies from doing what they’re doing,” he said. “Unfortunately, eventually, if you put enough things, they will interact with each other without you wanting.”

“All of these add up,” Walker said. “The more you have, it’s harder to mitigate. It’s harder to identify all those steaks. It’s hard to mask all those streaks in the data you get.”