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Elon Musk insists Starlink will cause zero issues for astronomers

Astronomers are none too pleased with the idea of potentially tens of thousands of small satellites entering low-Earth orbit in the coming years, many of them deployed by multiple companies keen to blanket the world with broadband connectivity.

The star gazers are unhappy because they fear the sun-reflecting satellites will obscure their view of deep space and interfere with radio wavelengths used in the course of their work.

But this week Elon Musk, head of the internet-giving Starlink project that could deploy up to 42,000 satellites in the coming years, dismissed astronomers’ claims, insisting that they will still be able to enjoy a clear view of space.

Addressing an audience at the 2020 Satellite Conference in Washington D.C. on Monday, March 9, Musk said he was “confident that [Starlink] will not cause any effect whatsoever in astronomical discoveries,” adding, “Zero. That’s my prediction. We’ll take corrective action if it’s above zero.”

He reminded everyone that SpaceX, the Musk-led rocket company that deploys the Starlink satellites, is already experimenting with different satellite designs aimed at reducing their brightness. One features a special coating that makes it less reflective when the sun’s rays hit it, while another incorporates a sunshade that has the same effect. Once engineers decide on the most efficient design, it’s expected to be utilized by all Starlink satellites moving forward.

One of the main issues troubling astronomers is that passing satellites can cause light trails in long-exposure images of faraway galaxies. Last year, Clarae Martínez-Vázquez, an astronomer at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, tweeted how she felt shocked by the appearance of so many Starlink satellites when they passed overhead, adding, “This is not cool.”

An image of the NGC 5353/4 galaxy group made with a telescope at Lowell Observatory in Arizona, USA on the night of Saturday 25 May 2019. The diagonal lines running across the image are trails of reflected light left by more than 25 of 60 Starlink satellites as they passed through the telescope’s field of view. Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory

Whether the new satellite design touted by Musk will be enough to placate astronomers remains to be seen. But the situation is deemed so serious by stargazers that a group of them is even considering legal action in a bid to delay future satellite deployments until a proper impact assessment can be made.

SpaceX’s most recent Starlink launch took place on February 17, 2020. The deployment, its fifth since its first major deployment in May 2019, saw another 60 satellites enter low-Earth orbit, taking Starlink’s total satellite count to 300. A further 60 satellites will be deployed during the next launch, slated for March 14.

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