Published by Gizmodo on February 7, 2022
A new center established by the International Astronomical Union is seeking to protect the interests of astronomers as the number of satellites in Earth orbit continues to climb.
The Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference, announced February 2, will be hosted by the National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory (NOIRLab) and the Square Kilometre Array Organization (SKAO). NOIRLab will concern itself with optical astronomy, while SKAO will look into issues related to radio astronomy.
“The new Centre is an important step towards ensuring that technological advances do not inadvertently impede our study and enjoyment of the sky,” Debra Elmegreen, the president of IAU, said in a statement. “I am confident that the Centre co-hosts can facilitate global coordination and bring together the necessary expertise from many sectors for this vital effort.”
The Centre will encourage satellite providers to minimize light pollution and other forms of astronomical interference, encourage governments and state officials to better regulate this blooming industry, and support the global community of astronomers who are now having to deal with problems caused by satellite interference.
Jessica West, a senior researcher on space security at Project Ploughshares, a Canadian peace and security research institute, said we’re reaching the point where our ability to observe space is being significantly harmed.
“This is a big problem,” she wrote to me in an email. “Astronomy is key to our exploration and use of space, deep space navigation, planetary defence from asteroids, and our knowledge of the Earth, Solar System, and Universe. And watching the night sky is core to who we are as humans. Losing that is a loss for every single person around the world.”
The cost of launching rockets and building satellites has never been lower. This is resulting in a mad rush to claim prime real estate in Earth orbit, as it now represents a viable place to do business. The private sector’s use of large fleets of interconnected satellites to provide broadband internet to paying customers is currently the most dominant example. Elon Musk has taken an early lead in this race for space, as SpaceX has now launched more than 2,000 Starlink satellites, with plans to launch at least 2,400 more. London-based OneWeb has launched hundreds of similar satellites, while Jeff Bezos’s Project Kuiper and the European Union intend to do the same.
Photo: This image shows 60 Starlink satellites stacked together before deployment on 24 May 2019.