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Starlink: SpaceX makes an agreement with astronomers to reduce light pollution

An agreement between SpaceX and the National Science Foundation (NSF) includes several options to reduce the impacts of the new generation of Starlink satellites on the observations of astronomers. However, this agreement does not satisfy everyone.

The agreement was announced at the 241e meeting de l’American Astronomical Society (AAS), January 10. For years, the scientific community has been concerned about the disastrous damage of light pollution and radio interference from the SpaceX megaconstellation on observations of the sky from professional observatories.

For years, the passage in the field of view of Starlink “trains” (several dozen communication satellites inhabiting a plane in low orbit) has reduced the availability of the sky for scientists. The National Science Foundation(NSF) specified that the negotiation of the agreement was made prior to the announcement of the federal communications court of the United States of a new license, authorizing Elon Musk’s company to put into orbit only one quarter of the 30,000 satellites requested.

SpaceX concessions

On the one hand, SpaceX has undertaken to reduce the brightness of the new Starlinks, so as to make their magnitude beyond 7 (i.e. invisible to the naked eye). If the light pollution generated will be less strong, it will nevertheless be present. On the other hand, SpaceX undertakes to no longer make transmissions when its satellites pass over a major radio observatory, to avoid interference with radio telescopes.

Finally, SpaceX agrees to remove its Starlinks from the LCH database (Laser CLearingHouse). The latter is used by astronomers using adaptive optics to correct the optical aberrations of their telescope, using a guiding laser. This laser can damage the optics of satellites, but not Starlink according to SpaceX. Thus, astronomers will have more windows of time during which they can observe.

64 m² is the surface area of ​​the deployable antenna of AST Space Mobile’s Bluewalker 3 demonstrator, a new luminous enemy of astronomers. © AST Space Mobile

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If Starlink populates more than half of the active satellites in space, this agreement with the NSF in no way solves the light pollution from the others. SpaceX was willing to negotiate this deal, but other operators of future low-orbit megaconstellations are coming, some like AST Space Mobile are making people cringe. Moreover, if the NSF is happy with this agreement, the association IDA (International Dark-Sky),defending the night sky, maintained its complaint against SpaceX with the FCC. The fight goes on.

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