Elon Musk now claims SpaceX's Starlink satellites will have 'zero' impact on astronomy, but research contradicts him

Elon Musk SpaceX Starlink
Elon Musk speaking at the Satellite Conference and Exhibition in Washington, Monday, March 9, 2020.

AP Photo/Susan Walsh

  • Elon Musk's space exploration company SpaceX is in the process of launching what it plans to be tens of thousands of satellites into space as part of its Starlink programme.

  • Starlink's goal is to provide high-speed internet to users around the world through this constellation of satellites.

  • Astronomy experts have voiced concerns that the fleet of satellites could damage astronomical research.

  • Musk said on Monday that he's confident Starlink "will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries."

  • A recent study from the European Southern Observatory suggests this is not the case.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

During a conference on Monday, Elon Musk addressed concerns from astronomers that his plans for launching a constellation of up to 42,000 satellites into orbit could damage astronomical research.

When asked about the concerns during a fireside chat-style interview at the Satellite 2020 conference in Washington, DC on Monday, Musk said: "I'm confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries, zero. That's my prediction. We'll take corrective action if it's above zero."

SpaceX's Starlink program has been launching satellites into space since May 2019, and currently has nearly 300 satellites in orbit. The American Astronomical Society issued a statement soon afterwards cautioning that mass launch of commercial satellites could adversely affect astronomical research, and astronomers quickly started to spot Starlink satellites leaving bright streaks across their readings.

Musk said that some of the concerns may have been caused by satellites slightly below their intended orbit.

"Some people get a little excited because when the satellites are first launched they're tumbling a little bit so they're going to blink because they haven't stabilized and they're erasing their orbit so they're lower than you'd expect, and they're naturally going to reflect in ways that is not the case when they're on orbit. But now that the satellites are actually on orbit, I'd be impressed if somebody could actually tell me where all of them are," he said.

"I've not met someone who can tell me where all of them are, not even one person. So I mean it can't be that big of a deal," he added.

A paper from researchers the European Southern Observatory published last week found evidence to suggest that large, sophisticated telescopes such as the state-of-the-art Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile (formerly known as the LSST, Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) could "severely affected" by the advent of large fleets of commercial satellites populating the night sky.

Musk went on to say that SpaceX has engaged with members of the scientific community on how to make its satellites less reflective, and gave some details about what ideas the company is toying with.

"We're running a bunch of experiments to for example paint the phased array antenna black instead of white, and we're working on a sunshade," he said.

SpaceX announced in January of this year that it was experimenting with using dark coatings to make its satellites less bright, although experts previously told Business Insider that this would be a complex operation that wouldn't necessarily solve the problem of the satellites interfering with astronomical readings.

One expert said SpaceX should halt satellite launches altogether.

"The bottom line is that if [Musk] is serious about these measures and serious about protecting the optical sky, then he should stop launching until these measures are fully designed, tested, and proven to work," Dr Dave Clements, an astronomer at Imperial College London, told Business Insider.

Clements added that Musk didn't address concerns raised by radioastronomers that Starlink satellites could end up effectively blinding radiotelescopes.

"None of the mitigation measures he lists or moving to a high orbit is going to change this since the satellites have to communicate with the ground, and these transmissions will inevitably interfere with some radio astronomy activities," said Clements.

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