Over the past decades, considerable effort has gone into designing, building, and deploying satellites for many important purposes. Recently networks, known as satellite constellations, have been deployed and are planned in ever greater numbers in mainly low Earth orbits for a variety of purposes, including providing communication services to underserved or remote areas – 1. Until this year, the number of such satellites was below 200, but that number is now increasing rapidly, with plans to deploy potentially tens of thousands of them. In that event, satellite constellations will soon outnumber all previously launched satellites.
The International Astronomical Union – IAU is concerned about these satellite constellations. The organisation, in general, embraces the principle of a dark and radio quiet sky as not only essential to advancing our understanding of the Universe of which we are a part, but also as a resource for all humanity and 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 both.
The scientific concerns are twofold. Firstly, the surfaces of these satellites are often made of highly reflective metal, and reflections from the Sun in the hours after sunset and before sunrise make them appear as slow moving dots in the night sky. Although most of these reflections may be so faint that they are hard to pick out with the naked eye, they can be detrimental to the sensitive capabilities of large ground based astronomical telescopes – 2, including the extreme wide angle survey telescopes currently under construction – 3. Secondly, despite notable efforts to avoid interfering with radio astronomy frequencies, aggregate radio signals emitted from the satellite constellations can still threaten astronomical observations at radio wavelengths. Recent advances in radio astronomy, such as producing the first image of a black hole or understanding more about the formation of planetary systems, were only possible through concerted efforts in safeguarding the radio sky from interference.
The IAU is a science and technology organisation, stimulating and safeguarding advances in those areas. Although significant effort has been put into mitigating the problems with the different satellite constellations, we strongly recommend that all stakeholders in this new and largely unregulated frontier of space utilisation work collaboratively to their mutual advantage. Satellite constellations can pose a significant or debilitating threat to important existing and future astronomical infrastructures, and we urge their designers and deployers as well as policy makers to work with the astronomical community in a concerted effort to analyse and understand the impact of satellite constellations. 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 IAU’s Commission B7 Protection of Existing and Potential Observatory Sites welcomes the opportunity to work proactively with everyone involved in these efforts.
- 1 – Examples of these include the Iridium satellite constellation, SpaceX’s Starlink , OneWeb, Globalstar, Amazon’s Project Kuiper, and Facebook Athena.
- 2 – The largest optical telescope currently under construction (the Extremely Large Telescope, ELT) has a main mirror 39 metres in diameter. Such ground-based observatories are essential complements to astronomical satellites, which are not affected by the reflections. Costs and limitations on size and weight preclude the launch of particularly large telescopes, and the difficulty in repairing and maintaining telescopes in space means that the newest, most revolutionary technologies are implemented on ground-based telescopes decades before it is prudent to attempt them in space. Both types are fundamental to astronomy.
- 3 – The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) will have the ability to survey the entire sky in only three nights.
The IAU is the international astronomical organisation that brings together more than 13 500 professional astronomers from more than 100 countries worldwide. Its mission is to promote and safeguard astronomy in all its aspects, including research, communication, education and development, through international cooperation. The IAU also serves as the internationally recognised authority for assigning designations to celestial bodies and the surface features on them. Founded in 1919, the IAU is the world’s largest professional body for astronomers.
Link International Astronomical Union statement on satellites constellations