Regulators Are Ignoring How Low Orbit Satellite Broadband Is Trashing The Night Sky

from the blinded-by-science dept

As previously noted, Space X, Amazon, and others are pushing harder than ever into the low-orbit satellite broadband game. The industry, pockmarked by a long road of failures, involves firing thousands of smaller, cheaper, lower orbit satellite constellations into space to help supplement existing broadband services. The lower orbit means that LO satellite service will offer lower-latency broadband than traditional satellite offerings, which for 15 years or so have been widely maligned as expensive, slow, "laggy," with annoying monthly caps.

And while these services should absolutely help bring some additional options to rural Americans, nautical ventures, and those out of range of traditional service, folks shouldn't get their hopes up in terms of broader disruption of the uncompetitive U.S. telecom market. The physics involved in satellite transmission means there will always be limited capacity and odd throttling and network management restrictions, meaning it won't really make much headway in highly monopolized major metro areas. In short, the tech is absolutely a positive advancement, but it's not going to be the game changer many think.

And there's another growing problem with low orbit satellite technology. As we launch thousands of these micro-satellite constellations into space, the LO satellites are annoying professional and amateur astronomers, who say they're interfering with space observation and important scientific data collection (especially at wide-field observatories). During the recent monitoring of the NEOWISE comet, for example, photographer Daniel Lopez showed what Starlink "photobombing" looks like in practice for those trying to track these sort of events in the night sky:

Cometa y pase de satélites Starlink 😢. . Anoche, tratando de realizar un seguimiento del cometa con un 200mm y la Canon...

Posted by El Cielo de Canarias on Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Not great. And it's going to get notably worse. Amazon's Project Kuiper constellation, for example, will eventually consist of 3,236 satellites, more than the 2,600 satellites currently in orbit. Space X's Starlink project, in contrast, could ultimately consist of as many as 12,000 satellites all told. In some instances this is an even worse problem for slightly higher altitude LO satellites. And keep in mind this is just the testing phase... we haven't even gotten close to broader commercial deployment yet.

While Space X says it's taking steps to minimize the glare and "photo bombing" capabilities of these satellites (such as anti-reflective coating on the most problematic parts of the satellites), regulators at the FCC and elsewhere appear to be asleep at the wheel in terms of the broader impact on science and astronomy:

"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."

No guidelines. Not just patchy or undeveloped guidelines. But none.

It won't get mentioned by the Times, but part of the problem are regulators who base their decisions on ideology and not data. In telecom, folks on the "deregulate everything and free market magic springs forth from the sidewalk" side of the policy aisle have long tried to paint emerging broadband alternatives as near-mystical panaceas to justify deregulation. As in, "we don't need regulation of telecom monopolies or consumer protection because this new technology X will create competition and fix everything." It never works because the U.S. telecom industry is painfully monopolized and broken, yet that never seems to matter.

This performative policy happened most notably years back with broadband over powerline (BPL), which former FCC boss turned cable's top lobbyist Mike Powell hyped as the "great broadband hope." Powell routinely hyped the tech to justify his massive deregulation of telecom in the aughts, but willfully ignored the fact the technology was an interference prone mess causing massive problems for radio transmissions nearby. BPL failed, and you only need to look at U.S. broadband prices, rankings, or Comcast's customer support to see how this worked out for everybody.

Low orbit satellite is far more useful and solid than BPL ever was, but I'm expecting to see it used in much the same way by the Pai FCC. As in: Pai's crew will quickly rubber stamp Amazon and Space X's ambition, hopeful that the added competition will help them retroactively justify their complete demolition of U.S. telecom consumer protections at the telecom lobby's behest. As in, we didn't need pesky oversight of monopolies because free market competition saved the day. But by Musk's own admission Starlink won't truly disrupt U.S. telecom because it can't serve dense urban or suburban markets, meaning companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast won't be meaningfully disrupted, and reality and aspirational policy once again won't line up.

When your top priorities are the maximizing of corporate revenues or the retroactive justification of bad policy based exclusively on ideology, the end result usually tends to lack... nuance. And in this case, this regulatory myopia could in many ways have unintended harm that goes well beyond the telecom sector and into the night sky itself.

Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: broadband, competition, fcc, leo, low earth orbit, night sky, pollution, satellite broadband, satellites


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Thread


  • identicon
    rocky, 21 Aug 2020 @ 1:57pm

    Two senators have asked for a GAO review of a 1986 decision by the FCC that satellite systems were covered by a “categorical exemption” to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires an environmental impact statement. The exemption means that satellite systems seeking FCC licenses like Starlink are not required to undergo an analysis for their effects on the night sky. In January, a paper by a Vanderbilt University law student attracted attention by arguing that the categorical exemption was inappropriate and that the FCC could be sued in federal court to overturn it. https://spacenews.com/senators-ask-gao-to-review-fcc-oversight-of-satellite-constellations/

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      William Null, 21 Aug 2020 @ 7:01pm

      Re:

      That photobomb thing? Nothing clone tool in Photoshop or GIMP can't fix.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 8:41am

        "That photobomb thing? Nothing clone tool in Photoshop or GIMP can't fix."

        I don't follow, please explain.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 22 Aug 2020 @ 2:20pm

          Re:

          Not being expert in either Photoshop or GIMP I believe he is talking about the ability to fill in certain spaces with information from adjoining pixels. What I think he is missing that that astronomers don't take pictures for esoteric reasons. They want to know what is out there, and while one pixels worth of information may not be the same as the next pixel and filling in those blanks with false information does them no good at all. They need to see all the pixels, as they exist, not as imagined.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2020 @ 4:13am

            Re: Re:

            Yup, and some astronomers look for slight variations in the position of a star in order to detect the existence of a planet in orbit around same. The lack of data caused by a photobomb could change the outcome of such an endeavor.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              William Null, 23 Aug 2020 @ 3:45pm

              Re: Re: Re:

              Ground-based telescopes aren't the way to go anyway, because atmosphere. We need more space telescopes like Hubble, Kepler or Webb. Which doesn't care about LEO satellites. And with the clone tool comment I've meant stuff like that timelapse photo that was embedded in the article.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Cowardly Lion, 24 Aug 2020 @ 4:53am

                Re: Re: Re: Re:

                You may not be aware, but something ridiculous like >95% of all astronomical discoveries come from the amateur domain. It's both vast and dedicated. And although there is some serious high-tech expensive kit out there, I can well imagine that launching a telescope out into space might be a tad beyond the capabilities of all but the most serious and well trousered astronomers.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2020 @ 5:17am

                Re: Re: Re: Re:

                I hear the argument but it has flaws, like how do you get your newfangled satellite into orbit when there is no window.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Nathan F (profile), 21 Aug 2020 @ 2:01pm

    So.. if all those companies put as many satellites up as they want (upwards of 15k+), what is that going to do to our space trash problem and possible launch window issues?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Aug 2020 @ 8:28pm

      Re:

      Nothing good.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      mhajicek (profile), 21 Aug 2020 @ 11:07pm

      Re:

      Low orbit satellites decay on their own a few years after running out of fuel, so they won't be a problem.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 8:51am

        Re: Re:

        "so they won't be a problem"

        Depends upon ones definition of the word problem.

        In reference to space junk residing in low earth orbit:
        "Most of that debris sits within 1,250 miles of Earth's surface in what is known as low Earth orbit, home to lots of satellites, such as NASA’s Earth Observing System fleet and the International Space Station."
        NationalGeographic

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2020 @ 5:41am

      Re:

      From wikipedia, as of October 2019, the US Space Surveillance Network reported nearly 20,000 artificial objects in orbit above the Earth,[7] including 2,218 operational satellites.[8] However, these are just the objects large enough to be tracked. As of January 2019, more than 128 million pieces of debris smaller than 1 cm (0.4 in), about 900,000 pieces of debris 1-10 cm, and around 34,000 of pieces larger than 10 cm were estimated to be in orbit around the Earth

      Those satellites will be a very small addition to the existing hazards.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bloof (profile), 21 Aug 2020 @ 2:36pm

    They knew it could be a problem, but they pushed ahead anyway just to be first as nobody who cared was in a position to tell them no.

    God help humanity if Elon Musk ever turns his attention to nanotechnology. We'll get lovely assurances that in future they'll take concerns on board and take more care in trying to avoid turning people into grey goo, even as people continue to melt.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Aug 2020 @ 3:38pm

      Re:

      Nanotechnology in the scifi sense is a myth in its depictions - assuming that chemistry will behave like macroscopic objects. We are long predated by self modifying and blindly self reproducing things - they are called microbes.

      Actual nanotechnology is making bespoke very versions of logic gates or very expensive exotic materials.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Rekrul, 21 Aug 2020 @ 3:43pm

        Re: Re:

        Nanotechnology in the scifi sense is a myth in its depictions - assuming that chemistry will behave like macroscopic objects.

        You mean nanotechnology can't make huge objects appear out of thin air and instantly morph into whatever material is required at the time? Color me shocked!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Paul B, 21 Aug 2020 @ 8:17pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          I mean gray goo does not always require Nano tech. Just small stupid robots that break things down and harvest them to make new robots.

          The world could easily end with Romba tree cutters and other tools that on there own are kinda dumb but as a group are enough to clear lots of land quickly.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2020 @ 10:32pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          What's more likely to happen is one of those nanites getting stuck in the food / water supply, being ingested by someone / thing, and causing harm / death due to faulty programming / some jackass with a phone app.

          Think IoT quality at a nano level. "Clogged arteries? Better buy Nanocleaner Organic!" "Clogged engine? Buy our nano-scrubbing fuel additive." That kind of thing.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Aaron Walkhouse (profile), 22 Aug 2020 @ 7:13am

      The grey goo hypothesis has fulfilled it's purpose…

      …by being studied and debunked.

      Nanotech is too localized to sustain any effort.

      As the units are the size of molecules they instantly
      use up nearby resources and are extremely vulnerable
      to enviromental conditions; thus their efforts stop as
      soon as almost anything happens.

      Even if a "culture" started to spread it would be so
      extremely delicate that sunshine, noise, pH changes,
      static electricity, heat or any pollution would stop it in
      it's tracks before anybody notices. ‌ If somebody did
      notice, a quick spray of soap would clean it right up. ‌ ‌ ; ]

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rekrul, 21 Aug 2020 @ 3:44pm

    We've polluted most of the planet, so now we feel the need to pollute space as well.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    OldMugwump (profile), 21 Aug 2020 @ 4:18pm

    Oh calm down

    What did you think was going to happen?

    Did you think 1000 years from the sky wasn't going to have hundreds of thousands of orbiting objects in it?

    Unless you want the human race stuck on this one planet until we kill ourselves off (which won't be long if we're only on one planet), soon or later we're going to colonize the galaxy.

    Sooner is better.

    Lights in the sky seem a small price to pay for that.

    120 years ago you people would have been the ones moaning about how these newfangled "airplane" things are going to mess up view of the clouds.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ECA (profile), 21 Aug 2020 @ 4:51pm

      Re: Oh calm down

      Its the Mugwump..
      You are correct, and its funny that the Corps are not pushing harder to get all the EXCESS persons into space..
      It would solve allot of problems..
      But it fun to think that (?) NASA asked a question, and millions answered..."if it was a 1 way trip would you goto space/Mars?"
      The Answer? YES!!!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Bloof (profile), 21 Aug 2020 @ 4:58pm

      Re: Oh calm down

      Poorly thought out internet cubesats aren't the first step to colonising space. They're making life harder for the astronomers doing the actual groundwork for future space exploration and putting a lot of shiny garbage in orbit to endanger future missions.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 7:01am

      Re: Oh calm down

      Unless you want the human race stuck on this one planet

      Sounds OK. The galaxy (and the universe) will be fine without humans all over the place, thanks.

      Humans aren't even very good material for filling up space. You "colonization for survival" fetishists would be better off going with something more efficient, some organism stripped down to do nothing but spread and reproduce. Rocket-building bacteria.

      In your world, everything else seems to be a luddite distraction anyway.

      until we kill ourselves off

      Actually, all of "us" are going to die regardless. Nobody alive is moving to space, and definitely nobody alive is living forever. What you want is for some completely unrelated people to maybe come into existence at some future time. Those are fantasy people, unless specific actions are taken to make them real.

      If we don't dick around with your grandiose space colonization bullshit, and therefore there aren't 15 gazillion humans wandering around all over the galaxy (until they kill themselves off), then absolutely nobody will in fact be any worse off. The interests of nonexistent people don't count.

      If you don't take a course of action that creates somebody, you have not wronged that person. If you do take a course of action that creates somebody, then of course you're responsible for what happens to them. And you have no way of knowing what kind of lives they might have, should you succeed in bring them into being.

      And as for the interests of any possible set of "end times" inhabitants of Earth itself, you're not going to save enough of them to rise above the noise floor. You might make their lives worse by burning resources on this colonial horseshit, or by provoking fights over who gets to run it.

      soon or later we're going to colonize the galaxy.

      Well, that's circular, isn't it? Either you do it or you don't. Duh.

      And the bottom line is that nobody should care.

      Lights in the sky seem a small price to pay for that.

      Not to people who aren't caught in some kind of fucked-up, mindlessly expansionist, species worship thing.

      ... and not, by the way, that these particular constellations will contribute in any way to any colonization objective you might have. They are simply an application of well-understood technology to an unrelated problem. They will have no spin-offs. All they'll do, if they do anything at all, is make it easier to get onto TikTok. Not every fool thing anybody does in space necessarily contributes to your Grand Takeover.

      120 years ago you people would have been the ones moaning about how these newfangled "airplane" things are going to mess up view of the clouds.

      On your own values, aviation adds very little value and should probably be cut way back. Steamships and trains made the modern world; they enable industry that can get you off the planet. Most airplanes just make it easier to go be an obnoxious tourist, and/or to drop bombs on people. Those are distractions from taking over the galaxy as soon as possible. You should only care about the very few airplanes that directly contribute to colonization.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 22 Aug 2020 @ 4:43pm

        Re: Re: Oh calm down

        Humans aren't even very good material for filling up space.

        I think the objective is not "make sure something is alive out there" but "make sure the human species survives somewhere".

        The interests of nonexistent people don't count.

        To you. Obviously some people do care about the existence and welfare of people who haven't been born yet.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 8:00pm

          Re: Re: Re: Oh calm down

          Not just people who haven't been born yet. People who under any sane policies would never be born. There is a difference between taking care somebody who will be born and going out of your way to make sure somebody does get born.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            teka, 24 Aug 2020 @ 12:22pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Oh calm down

            Nice to know you've developed policies on who is born. Distributing food rations and energy coupons next, in the name of sanity?

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        OldMugwump (profile), 23 Aug 2020 @ 7:15pm

        Re: Re: Oh calm down

        Attacking an opponent's values, based on your imagination of what those values are, is a really weak way of convincing your opponent (who almost certainly doesn't have the values you assume based on a few lines of text), or anybody else.

        What's your point, exactly? That you don't care whether the human race survives? That other people shouldn't care? Is it just that I'm today's target for generic negativity?

        Or are you just rhetorically masturbating - spouting text that's meant to put down your imaginary opponent - because it feels good, without having any point of your own to make?

        You aren't the only one who does this. Y'all seem to be a sub-species of troll, who get their kicks from imagining that they make other people feel bad, but fail to accomplish even that, as they attack imaginary strawmen who don't exist. While not putting forward any ideas, criticism, or opinion of their own.

        So, care to enlighten me re the purpose of a comment like yours? I'd really like to know.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    ECA (profile), 21 Aug 2020 @ 4:48pm

    Just for fun

    Do we have enough metal up there to Start the Dyson sphere?? YET??

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 22 Aug 2020 @ 4:49pm

      Re: Just for fun

      Do we have enough metal up there to Start the Dyson sphere?? YET??

      Start? Sure.

      "That's 2.22 Septillion (2.22 Trillion Trillion) kilograms of Iron."

      https://www.reddit.com/r/theydidthemonstermath/comments/8kms8q/how_much_material_must_be _used_to_build_a_dyson/dzacn6w/

      There are 1300 satellites in orbit, the largest of which (the ISS) is 420,000 kg.

      https://qz.com/296941/interactive-graphic-every-active-satellite-orbiting-earth/

      So it's not much of a start.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 24 Aug 2020 @ 1:51am

        Re: Re: Just for fun

        ...and with iron alone it's not going to be a decent dyson sphere. I mean, there's the "poor dyson sphere builder's solution" of just covering the output of a star with sufficient numbers of floating habitats but that's cheating. What you really want to make a dyson sphere or better yet, a matrioshka brain, is some form of material with sufficient tensile strength to actually create a full enclosure of the star.

        We're looking at some fairly exotic forms of matter being required. Larry Niven's scrith from his "Ringworld" books, perhaps, or some other form of pseudoscientific impossibility...

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          nasch (profile), 24 Aug 2020 @ 7:36am

          Re: Re: Re: Just for fun

          I don't think you need anything all that exotic because there's not a great deal of force applied anywhere. Consider starting with one satellite in an orbit similar to Earth's. Then attach another satellite to it, and another, until there's a ring all the way around. Then start building toward the "poles". Other than impacts, all it has to withstand is the sun's gravity, which is almost nothing at that distance.

          https://van.physics.illinois.edu/qa/listing.php?id=1063&t=gravitational-pull-of-the-su n

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2020 @ 8:47am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Just for fun

            Low force only applies while in an orbit, which has a centre that is coincident with the centre of the Earth. To stay in a fixed position relative to an orbiting object and out of the orbit plane takes force. In your example, the bits above the the poles have a full one G of force towards the Earth, because they have zero orbital velocity.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              nasch (profile), 24 Aug 2020 @ 9:54am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Just for fun

              In your example, the bits above the the poles have a full one G of force towards the Earth

              In reality (wait is that what we're talking about?) nobody would be likely to build a Dyson Sphere. Just a ring would have millions of times the surface area of Earth. By the time we could build such a thing and actually use all that space, it would probably make more sense to go build one around another star than to go full Dyson sphere. IMO anyway. It would also be problematic to build one here because, well, the Earth is in the way.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • identicon
                Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2020 @ 10:39am

                Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Just for fun

                Read whatever it s orbiting instead of Earth.

                The only parts of a sphere or ring, not subject to some gravitational force are those at orbital velocity, and on the plane of the orbit at exact orbital height. While the forces are small, satellites are subject to gravitational torques because parts are outside the line that defines the orbit. Part of satellite design is distributing its mass so that it keeps the desired bit pointing to whatever it is orbiting.

                Oh another problem with Dyson spheres, and ring worlds, ,their position are not stable, and a nudge off centre results in a drift in that direction. Also, a ring world rotating at orbital velocity has a problem for living on, effectively no gravity at its surface. Rotate it fast enough to create artificial gravity and whatever it is made off requires considerable strength.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 25 Aug 2020 @ 1:16am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Just for fun

            "I don't think you need anything all that exotic because there's not a great deal of force applied anywhere."

            Put a trillion tons of iron around the solar system and I'll show you some impressive tidal force torque, even as far out as the outer asteroid belt. Even your idea about an earth ring will end up shredding every known material in a single lunar revolution.

            The main issue is that anything remotely solid will end up undergoing regular and persistent deformation due to gravitational shifts - and the weak gravity of the gas giants will be anything but negligible if it acts on enough mass.

            So that means you need something either flexible and durable enough to survive the constant flexing and magically hold it's position without the still-standing poles of it just collapsing inwards to the sun - or something rigid and indestructible enough to not give a shit about the fact that every time one of the gas giants swing past enough forces sufficient to move earth-sized planets will be tearing parts of the dyson sphere in multiple directions.

            Conventional theory states that in order to build a dyson sphere you need to strip-mine and convert every planetary body in the star system into shell material. If that's the tech we are assumed to have then the shell will be built out of something not covered by the periodic table - i.e. exotic matter, because i doubt we'll find transuranic elements solid, lightweight and stable enough.

            If we ever do find a civilization capable of encasing a star we'd better hope the god-like beings in charge of that are friendly or at least uninterested.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 25 Aug 2020 @ 1:19am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Just for fun

              Addendum:

              Larry Niven's "Ringworld" solution is slightly more feasible. You can spin it to provide stability and centripetal force, something which would be difficult to manage with a sphere. That solves a lot of problems but introduces even more demand on the durability of the material.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile), 21 Aug 2020 @ 5:58pm

    Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Well...

    What about returning spacecraft, say from the space station? Do they have a responsibility to vector around these floating mines? Will they have some liability when they fail to vector around these floating mines?

    Don't get me wrong, I like the idea of low earth orbit satellites, but have all the potential unintended consequences even been considered?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 21 Aug 2020 @ 8:04pm

      Re: Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Well...

      I think you are grossly underestimating the amount of space up there for these satellites. It would take precision beyond the level of a 2 mile sniper shot to try to hit one of these when returning to earth. Sure 20,000+ LEO satellites sounds like a lot, but there is a lot of space up there for them to sit in.

      The lowest diameter of SpaceX satellite orbit of their initial 4425 satellites is about 9000 miles giving a total sphere surface area of about 250 million square miles. If you flattened that out in a 2d plain, that would be about 56,500 square miles per satellite.

      The "challenge" of vectoring around these, is about equal to vectoring around a single Tesla in a target the size of the entire state of Michigan. Not a concern in the least.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Paul B, 21 Aug 2020 @ 8:24pm

        Re: Re: Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Well...

        I mean the real issues are:

        If you do hit one (or anything bigger than a screw) its a bad day for the ship taking off.

        The units are causing various ground based platforms a huge amount of problems since they are trying to detect the wobble caused by planets going around stars by red/blue shift. This is a huge issue for things that require good long exposure times since the satellites are setup in a fairly standard pattern to give good global coverage.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          mhajicek (profile), 21 Aug 2020 @ 11:11pm

          Re: Re: Re: Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Well...

          Put the telescopes in orbit too, they'll work much better there.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 5:01am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Wel

            Better yet, on the far side of the moon, along with some radio telescopes.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            nasch (profile), 22 Aug 2020 @ 4:53pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Wel

            Put the telescopes in orbit too, they'll work much better there.

            They're doing that too, but it's astronomically (ha!) more expensive.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        ECA (profile), 22 Aug 2020 @ 3:59am

        Re: Re: Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Well...

        Earth ~24,000 miles around it..
        Soo, about 1 per mile..
        And a 12 guage/.72 Lead slug traveling at ??,??? Mph..(not much friction) Will burn up on re-entry.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 11:45am

          Re: Re: Re: Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Well...

          The earth is a sphere, not a circle, and these satelites are not in an equatorial orbit. You need to use surface area of a sphere, not diameter of a circle. In fairness, you do need to subtract some of it, since they don't quite make it to the poles.

          By your logic, the 7.7 billion people on earth would each only have 0.2 inches of space to exist.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 10:06am

        Re: Re: Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Well...

        "I think you are grossly underestimating the amount of space up there for these satellites."

        Are you claiming there is no threat? Debris Avoidance Maneuvers are not cheap, they are not uncommon and are used to avoid the junk they can detect. Small objects at high velocity are not detectable with present technology and are capable of significant damage. But hey - let's go on a space vacation because it is so safe and all.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 11:47am

          Re: Re: Re: Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Well...

          Or we could all do nothing at all, since every action carries some inherent risk.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 12:36pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Wel

            Thats hardly the point here

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • identicon
            Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2020 @ 1:13pm

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Wel

            Or we could ignore risk, since every action carries some inherent risk, and what's the difference between a small one and a large one? /s

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 10:05pm

        Re: Re: Shift left! If I do we will miss the runway! Well...

        You're spherical cow math is leaving out a number of rather important factors.

        The problem is considerably greater than your gross oversimplification allows for.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Eldakka (profile), 22 Aug 2020 @ 3:24am

    In the short term this is going to be a huge problem for astronomers. But not in the medium (10-30 years) or longer term. Why you ask?

    Because the primary thing that all these launches are doing is bringing down the cost of entry to space. SpaceX has already brought it down massively from $200 million for a large satellite launch (sole use of the launch vehicle) to something like $60 million for sole (reusable) use of the launch vehicle. And it's still coming down. It's even been reported (not sure if this is from SpaceX or just speculation) that it costs SpaceX less than $60 million/launch, but since everyone else is still paying $100-200 million at present, i.e. lack of competition, they have undercut their rivals enough for the time being, leaving a comfortable margin for themselves.

    Once Starship and New Glenn and all the others come online (e.g. follow-on to Ariane 6, ULAs project, etc.), prices will come down even further.

    In the last 20 years, there has only been one major optical telescope launched into orbit, Hubble, due to cost. With its replcement, JWST still not launched, not until next year at the earliest.

    In a decade, I think it will be relatively cheap to launch 4m(Hubble)-8m(JWST) class telescopres into orbit. Might not sound very big, but Hubble at 4m is better than any of the existing 8m-10m ground based telescopes, like Keck of VLT (operating independantly, one the hook em up into their interferometry configurations, combining 2 Kecks or all 4 VLTs into a single scope they are perhaps better). Therefore even small collaborations will be able to launch these types of telescopes into orbit themselves. With the larger launch vehicels like Starship, 10m-class telescopes could be launched into orbit relatively cheaply for larger colloborations such as 30m-class scale collaborations. Sure, they don't have the serviceability or upgradeability of ground-based 'scopes, you can't just add more experients to them, but you may be able to launch a new scope per colloboration every 10 years or even more often with the newer instrumentation.

    And long term 30+ years, with this declining cost in access to space, they may be looking at building even larger telescopes on the moon. Perhaps even bigger than the 30m-class that are currently under construction that a lower gravity would allow.

    I see it as a short term pain for the astronomers for a medium to long term atronomical (pun intended) gain with routine space-based or even moon-based 'scopes.

    And, hey, if the costs to space don't come down much, then the satellite swarms won't be profitable. They'll cost too much to maintain the swarms in LEO, they'll all just deorbit and burn up in the atmosphere. ~3 years after they stop replenishing the swarms due to cost, their LEO orbits will decay and they'll all burn up, thus opening up the night sky again.

    So either it'll be profitable because access to space is cheap, thus opening up other realms of possibilities cheap space access allows, or they won't and they'll remove themselves from the night sky in a few years anyway, bringing us back to the status quo in 10-15 years.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 10:10am

      Re:

      How do you launch when there is no window? With enough junk up there, orbital insertion without collision will become impossible thus driving up the vehicle cost due to additional shielding and the fuel to lift same.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Eldakka (profile), 22 Aug 2020 @ 3:20pm

        Re: Re:

        Even with 100,000 satellites in LEO, all improbably in the same orbital plane (~428km for my calculation, but obviously they will be spread across several planes from ~250km to about 1300km depending on the particular companies plan, not all lumped into the same plane, thus the separations will be even greater because there will be far less per plane than I've calculated, but more complex as there will be several nested spheres of orbits with greater separations to pass through), that still puts them at an average separation of 140km. Plenty of room to launch a rocket through.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2020 @ 4:25am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Present launch operations already encounter launch window blackout periods and we do not seem to be doing much about mitigation.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 8:02am

    Total bullshit.

    This is not a problem with "micro satellites" (and at 500 lbs a pop, calling a starlink satellite a "micor satellite" is a bit of a stretch). This is a problem with astronomers failing to apply the plentiful solutions. Done right, this is a non-problem.

    First off, you know where you can see these streaks with your unassisted eyes? Nowhere, that's where. Not because they're too dim, but because THEY DON"T EXIST. They are purely an artifact of long-exposure photography. From the length of the trails, at least multiple seconds. This is how you have to take photos of dim scenes when you use silver-halide photographic plates, as astronomers used to do. You know who does that nowadays? Almost nobody. Instead they use light sensitive electronic sensors (CCDs, bolometers and other depending on the EM frequency you want to capture). To get the shown effect, you use low (ish) sensitivity sensors with a high integration time (the time over which the sensor builds up the charge representing the light the sensor is receiving). For a number of reasons - one of which is the ease with which the satellite images can be removed and replaced by the background - this is, to me, a very dubious approach. Probably penny-pinching to avoid the cost of better sensors. A much better approach would be a higher sensitivity sensor (preferably with more bits-per pixel than the desired output), lower integration time and you take multiple shots then sum them using a filter that removes the anomalies. If you add an exact knowledg of your position and the exact location of the starlink satellites when you shoot, an even better filter could easily be developed.

    There is no reason for this problem, other that bad technique by the astronomer, that would take more that a few thousand dollars at the outside to fix (for better sensors, which would be a boon to the astronomers anyway). Even if it were impossible to fix at the astromer's end (which is isn't), I would put the (great) economic value of the starlink system - which will support unconnected people and communities around the entire globe, eventually, above the narrow interests of these astronomers. To those who moan an complain about this, I say: Boo hoo, cry me a river, you are just a bunch of selfish, NIMBY neoludites.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 10:14am

      Re: Total bullshit.

      What is your background in the field of astronomy? Is this the voice of experience or simply conjecture?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 10:21am

      Re: Total bullshit.

      Well, to start, they are lots of stars that cannot be seen by the naked eye, along with asteroids and other faint astronomical objects. Long exposure photographs, even with fast electronic sensors are needed to capture them. So yes, those satellites are a problem for astronomers.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Aug 2020 @ 1:22pm

      Re: Total bullshit.

      It's quite clear you have no idea what you're talking about. The problem is simply that finding objects is hard enough as it is. The problem is very simple: most things worth studying are dim and hard to see under the best of circumstances. We need to set up in isolated places because light pollution is a problem. By your logic, it ought to be just as easy to do astronomy in New York City, and the fact we have to set up in places like the Atacama Desert is just because we're too cheap to use better sensors.

      Plus, what happens when the satellite is right in front of the object we want to study? When you have thousands of them, that'll happen an awful lot, and the worst part is we won't even know all the times it happens: how many dim objects will be missed because we never noticed them because of the glare of satellites?

      As for neoluddites, you do know most astronomers are into, you know, space, right? We support things like NASA, Mars exploration, and let's not even get started on space telescopes. So no, that's a ridiculous argument: just because you don't understand the problem doesn't mean it's not there.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 24 Aug 2020 @ 2:23am

      Re: Total bullshit.

      "There is no reason for this problem, other that bad technique by the astronomer..."

      So as a layman with no experience in the field your argument is that the highly paid professionals whose job has been to consistently improve their detection techniques are doing it wrong?

      Bravo. You should put this hypothesis of your up for publication and take away your nobel prize of physics. /s

      Meanwhile, in the real world, it's not that simple. Any object in orbit which reflects light adds a major factor of error. The light scatter alone is enough to drown out the sort of light astronomers try to detect, in much the same manner the headlight of an oncoming car a mile down the road will drown out the light of the firefly the astronomer tries to observe a hundred miles down the same road.

      "I would put the (great) economic value of the starlink system - which will support unconnected people and communities around the entire globe, eventually, above the narrow interests of these astronomers."

      One of the low-albedo slow moving object types said astronomers are looking for would be medium-sized asteroids on an intersect orbit with earth. Dinosaur killers, in other words. Statistically we're well overdue for one, and whether we spot it a century away or ten years away will mean the difference of whether we as a species will live or not.

      It takes a special kind of stupidity to value the short-term economy over the actual survival of the species.
      The universe isn't safe. There's almost no place in it where we won't either freeze or burn. Extinction events are a rule, not an exception. Sooner or later this planet will become uninhabitable in a hurry, and at least a few of the likely causes can be spotted only by astronomers.

      The only reason anyone would argue differently without just being ignorant and willfully blind is by the assumption that pot odds are a trillion-ton ice mountain won't be falling on our heads within the next century and the evaluation that it isn't worth giving a shit about what happens to your great-great-great-grandchildren or the human race as a whole.

      That would truly take "Fuck you, Got mine" to the next level.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 Aug 2020 @ 5:26am

        Re: Re: Total bullshit.

        "It takes a special kind of stupidity to value the short-term economy over the actual survival of the species"

        And yet this seems to be the prevailing attitude among corporate decisions and some politicians/voters.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 24 Aug 2020 @ 6:15am

          Re: Re: Re: Total bullshit.

          "And yet this seems to be the prevailing attitude among corporate decisions and some politicians/voters."

          I said "special".
          Not "rare".

          More's the pity...

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        nasch (profile), 24 Aug 2020 @ 7:39am

        Re: Re: Total bullshit.

        It takes a special kind of stupidity to value the short-term economy over the actual survival of the species.

        I'm sure it just never occurred to him that there could be something he didn't think of. This level of mansplaining (if that is an accurate term when the audience is not necessarily women) generally doesn't come with a lot of humility or introspection.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 25 Aug 2020 @ 1:23am

          Re: Re: Re: Total bullshit.

          "I'm sure it just never occurred to him that there could be something he didn't think of."

          Either that or - and this is lamentably not too uncommon among a certain subset of fuckwit - as long as the current generation does all right for itself they truly couldn't care less if todays actions mean the human race ends in fire from the sky a century or two down the road.

          As I said, it takes "Fuck you, Got Mine!" to the next level.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    :Lobo Santo (profile), 22 Aug 2020 @ 12:17pm

    Salutatory for Satellits.

    So, yes, there's an opportunity cost to putting up a great number of low-orbiting satellites.

    That said, it's looking like SpaceX may actually pull it off. There's people beta testing their satellite internet presently.

    We all know the broadband space is in desperate need of disruption, and if a satellite internet provider can do so, I'd like to say "more power to them!"

    Even better, we've got more than one competitor in the space (no pun)!

    In the future, I expect using satellites for astronomic observation will become more common, which completely ameliorates the ground-level photography issue. On top of that, there's a ton of cpu-drive techniques for getting non-static objects out of images.

    We have so much to gain, and ready solutions to every complaint. We should be going full-steam ahead on satellite internet, in my opinion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 22 Aug 2020 @ 1:40pm

      Re: Salutatory for Satellits.

      On top of that, there's a ton of cpu-drive techniques for getting non-static objects out of images.

      That alright where it is just the appearance that matters, but in astronomy a little spot of light is significant, as is its position relative to other little spots of light. Also, image differencing for spots of light are used to detect moving objects in the night skies. Spaces is about to introduce a lot of noise into images where low noise, at least on clear nights, was expected.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      nasch (profile), 22 Aug 2020 @ 5:00pm

      Re: Salutatory for Satellits.

      We all know the broadband space is in desperate need of disruption, and if a satellite internet provider can do so, I'd like to say "more power to them!"

      This was addressed in the second paragraph:

      "And while these services should absolutely help bring some additional options to rural Americans, nautical ventures, and those out of range of traditional service, folks shouldn't get their hopes up in terms of broader disruption of the uncompetitive U.S. telecom market. The physics involved in satellite transmission means there will always be limited capacity and odd throttling and network management restrictions, meaning it won't really make much headway in highly monopolized major metro areas. In short, the tech is absolutely a positive advancement, but it's not going to be the game changer many think."

      Something needs to disrupt the industry, but this won't be it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 25 Aug 2020 @ 1:30am

        Re: Re: Salutatory for Satellits.

        "Something needs to disrupt the industry, but this won't be it."

        Worse, it's yet one more of those "want to have" solutions meant to circumvent what people "need to have".

        There are plenty of ways to run a full-coverage landline all over a continent. Problem is the cost of that will be loaded on the taxpayers as a whole rather than paid for by any single corporate entity simply because the roi on supplying communication to small, scattered rural communities isn't going to be significant in the short term. Since it won't pay for itself to supply communication off the beaten track those communities remain isolated.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          teka, 25 Aug 2020 @ 4:10am

          Re: Re: Re: Salutatory for Satellits.

          It is then unfortunate that the taxpayers as a whole have been paying toward that lofty goal for a long while and into the expected future.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 26 Aug 2020 @ 12:33am

            Re: Re: Re: Re: Salutatory for Satellits.

            "It is then unfortunate that the taxpayers as a whole have been paying toward that lofty goal..."

            I re-read what I wrote and it didn't come out quite right.

            I'm not opposed to tax payers paying for core infrastructure - as a european I expect that's what my taxes are going to - but in the US such projects would be considered an abomination.
            To some extent that would be correct thinking as the US in quite a few memorable cases where they tried churning out massive government public-interest subsidies simply couldn't stop from turning it all into a pork barrel project.

            The issue I'm seeing here is that starlink constellations is the effort of private industry to cover infrastructure gaps which should have been the government's responsibility and as a result of that what you get is an overpriced and overhyped "pay more, get less" solution rather than a sustainable one.

            Fiber in the ground sticks around. Starlink doesn't and instead has to rely on someone perpetually firing new cubesats into orbit.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Insider Shop - Show Your Support!

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
.

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.