Welcome to the age of the satellite megaconstellation. Within the next few years, vast networks, containing hundreds or even thousands of spacecraft, could reshape the future of Earth’s orbital environment.
Much of the attention on these strings of satellites has been placed on the prolific launches of SpaceX and OneWeb, but the focus is now turning to Amazon. Last month, the Federal Communications Commission approved a request by the online marketplace to launch its Project Kuiper constellation, which, like SpaceX’s Starlink and OneWeb’s network, aims to extend high-speed internet service to customers around the world, including to remote or underserved communities hobbled by a persistent digital divide.
The Kuiper constellation would consist of 3,236 satellites. That’s more than the approximately 2,600 active satellites already orbiting Earth. While Amazon’s hardware is a long way from the launchpad, SpaceX has already deployed hundreds of satellites in its Starlink constellation, including 57 additional satellites that it launched on Friday. It may expand it to 12,000, or more. Facebook and Telesat could also get into the internet constellation business.
The rapid influx of satellites into low-Earth orbit has prompted pushback from professional and amateur astronomers. Starlink satellites are notorious for “photobombing” astronomical images with bright streaks, damaging the quality and reducing the volume of data that scientists collect for research. While SpaceX plans to mitigate the effects of its launches on astronomical observations, scientists and hobbyists in the community worry about the lack of regulation of constellations as more entrants such as Project Kuiper join the action.
“We don’t yet have any kind of industrywide guidelines,” said Michele Bannister, a planetary astronomer at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. “We don’t have an industry body that’s producing good corporate citizenship on the part of all of these enthusiastic companies that want to launch, and we don’t have any regulatory setup in place that’s providing clear guidelines back to the industry.”
She added, “To me, honestly, it feels like putting a bunch of planes up and then not having air traffic control.”
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