Dark Sky News: Artificial Satellites, Dark Sky Places

SpaceX Starlink satellites. Image credit:  Marco Langbroek

SpaceX Starlink satellites. Image credit: Marco Langbroek

Artificial Satellite Constellations: A New Threat to Astronomy and Dark Skies?

Since the dawn of the space age we have launched approximately 10,000 satellites into Earth orbit. In the span of just a few years this number may more than double. In May of this year thousands witnessed the string of lights from a cluster (aka “constellation”) of 60 satellites launched by SpaceX known as Starlink. SpaceX has FCC permission to launch 12,000 of these low earth orbit satellites. The spectacle received mixed reviews.

The International Dark Sky Association (IDA) and the astronomy community did not respond favorably, and SpaceX was surprised by their responses. Per an IDA conference call I attended on June 28 with Dr. James Lowenthal, an astronomy professor at Smith College and a leading dark sky advocate, I learned that SpaceX proactively reached out to the dark sky and astronomy communities to seek how they might address their concerns. For the record, SpaceX does not wish to pose a threat to astronomy. SpaceX has not produced the next batch of satellites yet, and the last set was made in a span of only three weeks. So, with input from the dark sky and astronomy communities, it hopes to discern whether they can implement favorable modifications before they produce the next batch. They are asking the astronomy community “what is the exact problem.”

SpaceX plans to launch a total of 4,400 satellites within the year, so a timely response is necessary. SpaceX has no obligation to consult the astronomical community. Its project is legal and no international treaty prevents it. Facebook and Google are also looking to emulate this new technology. It’s unknown if they will be as cooperative. The astronomical community is now working to present SpaceX with a defensible answer to its question and is vigorously running models using data provided by SpaceX. Inconclusive, early results indicate that perhaps as many as 480 satellites could be seen within an hour. It’s necessary to measure the satellites in their final orbit, and they have yet to reach that stage.

IDA has gone on record opposing satellite clusters. An urgent response is needed before more clusters are launched. With many astronomers on break or otherwise tied up for the summer, help is being sought from amateur astronomers and astrophotographers. One thing you can do to help the effort to curb the proliferation of these clusters is to post time and location data and photos of the cluster to the RCA forum (I will start a thread for Starlink under the imaging SIG). I will get these photos to the active members of the committee assigned to respond to SpaceX. RCA and IDA will also conduct social media outreach using these images. If you are interested in assisting with modeling efforts, let me know and I will put you in touch with the appropriate team member. Stay tuned for more information.

Status of International Dark Sky Places

By far, the most effective advocacy tool that IDA has found in its tool box is designating International Dark Sky Places (IDSP). As of June 2019, there are 122 IDSP’s world-wide totaling 22 million protected acres. Fifteen more IDSP’s are expected to be designated by the end of 2019. Because IDSP’s draw so much attention to dark sky issues as well as providing dark sky preservation, RCA’s Board has made helping to designate “Oregon’s First IDSP” one of its goals in the next two years. There are a few candidate sites where RCA has confirmed that the land managers are in favor of designation and where required studies in support of an application have either been initiated, nearly completed, or can be quickly conducted. These locations include:

  1. Black Butte Ranch (Dark Sky Community)

  2. City of Mosier (Dark Sky Community)

  3. Prineville Reservoir State Park (Dark Sky Park)

  4. Sunriver Nature Center & Observatory (Dark Sky Park or Urban Night Sky Place, depending on sky quality readings)

  5. Pine Mountain Observatory (Dark Sky Park)

Conversations are either planned or underway with land managers and local advocates for five other Oregon locations that would carry the designations of Urban Night Sky Place, Dark Sky Park, and Dark Sky Sanctuary. More information on these sites will be provided at the appropriate time.

If you would like to assist with conducting lighting inventories, writing lighting management plans, conducting sky quality measurements, or photographing night-time horizons in support of these designations, please contact me Dawn Nilson, Dark Sky Preservation Director.