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Starlink seeks to deliver global high-speed internet; astronomers say it’s interfering with their work

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Looking up at the night sky and admiring the stars is a pastime one generation after another has enjoyed. Astronomers are now concerned an ambitious project to bring high-speed internet to every corner of the world will disrupt their work and clutter the dark skies.

Starlink is a SpaceX project seeking to launch tens of thousands of satellites into space. The satellites are closer to earth than normal as that allows them to send down data more quickly.

However, the mesmerizing sight of trains of bright satellites hovering across the sky concerns astronomers, who say it's already a challenge to observe distant galaxies.

"I am excited by the promise of Starlink, having better access to broadband is really important now more than ever," said John Heasley, a member of Iowa County Astronomers. "I live in a rural part of the state where a lot of people don't have good connection to the internet."

Heasley moderates for the Iowa County Astronomers group, as well as the Driftless Stargazing page on Facebook. While he said he supports Starlink's mission, Heasley added he's concerned about the ongoing impact of SpaceX eventually launching more than 30,000 satellites.

"There could end up being thousands, tens of thousands of these satellites in orbit and they could interfere, they are interfering, with the ability of astronomers to do their research, both with visual light and with radiowaves as well," Heasley said.

The issue, according to astronomers, is that bright reflections from the sun bouncing off the satellites ruin the view of stars and galaxies, even with high-powered telescopes.

"Most of the objects astronomers are interested in are very faint," said UW-Madison Astronomy researcher, Ralf Kotulla. "It's like you're trying to paint some intricate pastel painting and then someone takes a big paintbrush full of black paints right over it."

The satellites are lower to the ground than normal ones because, the closer to the earth, the lower the latency, meaning less time to beam the signal back to the ground.

SpaceX, which did not respond to requests from 27 News, said it is making changes after hearing about astronomers' concerns. Heasley said a representative from the company was on a recent Zoom call with himself and other concerned astronomers.

The company said it plans to outfit future satellites with visors that will block much of the sun's reflection, which causes the brightness. SpaceX said it is also looking into ways to re-angle the satellites as they ascend into orbit so they don't reflect as much light back toward the earth.

"While that would go a long way, I don't think that's gonna mitigate the impact altogether," Kotulla said. "They're still there and you can still see them."

Heasley said he's hopeful the proposed changes will lessen the impact on astronomers' views. Both he and Kotulla said they hope SpaceX can find a solution that offers greater access to high-speed internet while not interfering with those finding our place in the universe -- and also preserving the simple act of looking up and admiring the stars.

"It's nice they're willing to work with us and I'm pretty sure SpaceX and the astronomy community, they have enough smart people there," Kotulla said. "Someone's gonna figure out a solution."

The most recent Starlink launch was set to happen earlier this month. However, much like the NASA crew launch scheduled to occur Wednesday, it was canceled due to bad weather. The Starlink launch is now expected to take place in early June; when it does happen, the satellites will be most visible just before dawn and after dusk.

A. J. Bayatpour

Reporter, WKOW 27

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