Astronomers call for regulations to stop commercial satellite constellations


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The astronomical community is now calling for new regulations to restrict the number of satellites that can be launched as part of the coming wave of new commercial constellations due to a fear these satellites will interfere with their observations.

Not surprising to me, it is the International Astronomical Union (IAU) that is taking the lead here.

The IAU statement urges satellite designers and policymakers to take a closer look at the potential impacts of satellite constellations on astronomy and how to mitigate them.

“We also urge appropriate agencies to devise a regulatory framework to mitigate or eliminate the detrimental impacts on scientific exploration as soon as practical,” the statement says. “We strongly recommend that all stakeholders in this new and largely unregulated frontier of space utilisation work collaboratively to their mutual advantage.”

When it comes to naming objects in space, the IAU likes to tell everyone else what to do. That top-down approach is now reflected in its demand that these commercial enterprises, with the potential to increase the wealth and knowledge of every human on Earth, be shut down.

The astronomy community has a solution, one that it has been avoiding since they launched Hubble in 1990, and that is to build more space-telescopes. Such telescopes would not only leap-frog the commercial constellations, it would routinely get them better results, far better than anything they get on Earth.

But no, they’d rather squelch the efforts of everyone else so they can maintain the status quo. They should be ashamed.

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13 comments

  • Chris Lopes

    Since these are the same folks who decided Pluto isn’t a “real” planet, I’ll just go ahead and ignore them about this too.

  • MDN

    I agree that we should build more and better space telescopes. That would be so much more useful than something like the lunar gateway.

    When the 2nd Falcon heavy launched a few months ago I gave this topic some consideration and found that an 8 meter mirror from the Univ of AZ mirror lab only weighs about 25,000 lbs., less than 1/5 of the SpaceX super heavy payload rating, and that will have a 9 meter fairing. So let’s loft a few of these up to replace Hubble and keep the great science going!

  • wodun

    They also want to put the far side of the Moon off limits but that is the best place to engage in activities that will alter the lunar landscape. Most of the Earth facing side of the Moon should be a monument or preserve. We only have the one Moon and it is one of the most culturally significant objects to ever exist in human history, next to the Sun.

    A lot of space nerds tend to denigrate human history and culturally significant objects, like the Moon. There is a lot of hubris and small minded thinking. The universe is a big place and our activities in space should not just be thought of in the short term of a decade or even a human lifespan but in centuries and millennia because that is the short term timescale as humans step out into space.

    Astronomers are upset that they would have to make telescopes in other parts of the solar system. Why? It is an amazing opportunity.

  • fred k

    The IAU has beclowned itself. It actually tries to base it’s anti-satellite position on:

    “…for the protection of nocturnal wildlife. We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky and despite their good intentions, these satellite constellations may threaten ….”

  • mpthompson

    This seems the equivalent to declaring the entirety of North and South America a wildlife preserve and closed for commercial development and settlement in the early 1500’s.

  • mpthompson

    “…for the protection of nocturnal wildlife. We do not yet understand the impact of thousands of these visible satellites scattered across the night sky and despite their good intentions, these satellite constellations may threaten ….”

    It’s a well-known fact that snipes navigate to their feeding grounds at dusk and dawn using 5th magnitude or dimmer stars. Or, at least I was told so during my last snipe hunt.

  • wodun

    Someone could model what the various constellations would look like to an observer on the ground and we could know just how annoying it will be when looking up at the night sky. Gazing at the stars has historically been very inspirational for humans. Would this continue to be the case? Would it be a loss any great than what we have now with light pollution? Would there be anywhere to experience a natural view?

  • Andi

    Some poems will have to be rewritten…

    “Star light, star bright,
    First star I see tonight,
    I wish I may, I wish I might,
    Oh heck, it’s just a satellite!”

  • M Puckett

    These are only going to be visible around dusk and dawn. Once the low-orbit sats are over the limb of the Earth, they will be in the dark. Just how much twilight and dawn astronomy is done anyways?

    I have a solution for the IAU. Become more nocturnal.

  • Edward

    Robert’s summary of the article: “The astronomical community is now calling for new regulations to restrict the number of satellites that can be launched as part of the coming wave of new commercial constellations due to a fear these satellites will interfere with their observations.

    The IAU, after failing to restrict the number of shooting stars that currently interfere with their observations, is now going after satellites, because they don’t have to appeal to a major deity, just the world’s governments. Which, come to think of it, consider themselves to be major deities.

    M Puckett suggested: “I have a solution for the IAU. Become more nocturnal.

    This does not solve the existing problem of satellites in medium and high orbits. Geostationary satellites also limit viewing for certain regions of the sky for each Earthbound telescope. Spacecraft already fill the sky, so it seems to me that the IAU is complaining about an already-closed (or should I say opaque?) window.

    From the article: “The visible light isn’t the only problem: the satellites use radio signals to communicate, which could interfere with observations in those frequencies. ‘Recent advances in radio astronomy, such as producing the first image of a black hole… were only possible through concerted efforts in safeguarding the radio sky from interference,’ the IAU statement says. Too many satellites emitting radio waves could endanger future studies.

    The radio spectrum has always been a major big deal for everyone.

    Satellite operators are already having difficulty with the limited bands that they have been allowed, trying to pack in more than fits. Most of the radio spectrum is set aside for non-space based radio traffic. Only a limited amount of the spectrum is used by spacecraft, and since spacecraft already fill the sky, it seems to me that the IAU is complaining about another already-closed window.

    The reality is that radio astronomy has only a few narrow bands that are free of man-made radio noise. I agree that they should be listening to a more complete spectrum, but this has always been difficult. The solution has long been to place radio telescopes on the far side of the Moon, but no one has championed that. Now that the Chinese are starting to broadcast there, this window is beginning to close for the radio astronomers.

  • wodun

    Andi
    June 5, 2019 at 6:52 am

    Some poems will have to be rewritten…

    I have written a fair number of poems on the subject and it looks like I need to expand the breadth of my musings.

  • wayne

    If I recall correctly, similar concerns were raised in the 1960’s.
    I don’t have time to dig through my physical copies–this topic comes up, more than once, in Sky & Telescope.
    –I believe M Puckett handles this nicely from a practical standpoint.
    (If I recall correctly–there was at least one project in the 1960’s which involved orbiting a series of giant reflecting mylar ‘balloons,’ which was ostensibly nixed over astronomical concerns. Not sure if it was an optical or radio project.)
    –My 2 cents; we don’t need a “regulatory framework” from these clowns. I’m sure everyone can work this all out between themselves, without inviting the government to the table. (what could possibly go wrong, eh?)

  • Andi

    wayne – perhaps you’re thinking of Echo:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Echo

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