SpaceX to Make Starlink Satellites Dimmer to Lessen Impact on Astronomy: Report

SpaceX has a fix in play to make its bright Starlink satellites less disruptive to astronomy, according to a SpaceNews report

After the first Starlink internet satellites launched in May, astronomers noticed that the little satellites are quite reflective and bright. With SpaceX reporting it wants to put 42,000 of these satellites in the sky, astronomers were concerned about it washing out parts of the night sky.

So now the company plans to treat one of the Starlink satellites with a special coating, when the next group goes in late December, according to SpaceX president and chief operating officer Gwynne Shotwell. 

Video: See SpaceX's 1st Starlink Satellites in the Night Sky
SpaceX's 1st Starlink Megaconstellation Launch in Photos!

A train of SpaceX Starlink satellites are visible in the night sky in this still from a video captured by satellite tracker Marco Langbroek in Leiden, the Netherlands on May 24, 2019, just one day after SpaceX launched 60 of the Starlink internet communications satellites into orbit. (Image credit: copyright Marco Langbroek via SatTrackBlog)

Shotwell, in a conversation with SpaceNews and other reporters at SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, California, said that the company had not anticipated problems with reflective satellites.

"No one thought of this," Shotwell said, according to SpaceNews. "We didn't think of it. The astronomy community didn’t think of it." But once reports came to SpaceX of the bright satellites, she added, the company began looking into fixes for the satellites."

A view of SpaceX's first 60 Starlink satellites in orbit, still in stacked configuration, with the Earth as a brilliant blue backdrop on May 23, 2019. (Image credit: SpaceX)

We want to make sure we do the right thing to make sure little kids can look through their telescope," she said in the SpaceNews report. "Astronomy is one of the few things that gets little kids excited about space."

SpaceX currently has 120 satellites in its constellation (a second batch of 60 satellites launched in November), and plans to launch more in batches of 60 every two or three weeks in 2020. The constellation should be globally operational around the middle of next year, Shotwell said. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon:

  • Phantom-e
    It seems to me that 42000 satellites, even if they're non-reflective, still may cause a problem with blocking the view.
  • RussInMiraMesa
    Actually, given that these satellites are in low earth orbit (under 250 miles), the uproar seems slightly overblown, since they are really only visible for an hour or two after sunset and before sunrise, while they are illuminated by the sun.

    I agree that these satellites encroach on observations by reducing the astronomical observation window -- but they don't close that window.
  • rod
    Low earth orbit I think is only for StarLink satellites test phase, then higher orbits follow. Professional observatories already recorded images of multiple starlink *stuff* moving by during the observation runs. Various amateur astronomers observing are reporting problems like this too. It is not uncommon for me when stargazing, to see a 4th or 5th magnitude fainter satellite move by the field of view too using my telescopes, apparently more frequently now that starlink is underway. Even if Starlink satellites are 7th magnitude, binocular viewers will be able to see this stuff too :)
  • Videovic
    Admin said:
    SpaceX has a fix in play to make its bright Star satellites less disruptive to astronomy.

    SpaceX to Make Star Satellites Dimmer to Lessen Impact on Astronomy: Report : Read more
    I want to suggest that Spacex uses Phanta black, the super absorbant black coating which is the blackest coating in existence.
  • rod
    In my view, time will tell after the many thousands of new satellites are in Earth orbit. The professional observatory reports and amateur astronomer, stargazer reports - so far do not look good for dark skies in the future. It could turn into a 1970s disco dance lighting in the sky :)