Alarmed by satellite constellations, astronomers turn to the UN for help

An increasing number of satellites in orbit threatens sky observations.

Astronomers watching the night sky are starting to feel the effects of the growing number of satellites swarming in orbit, and they want to do something about it before it’s too late. An international group of astronomy organizations has banded together to petition the United Nations to form a group to monitor the impact of satellites on astronomy.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO), the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the Square Kilometer Array Observatory (SKAO) have submitted a paper to the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Space (COPUOS) proposing to set up a new expert group dedicated to the issue, according to ESO.

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A delegation from these astronomy groups attended the 60th session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) of COPUOS from February 6 to 17. The proposal to form an expert group was submitted and signed at the end of the session by COPUOS member states Chile, Spain, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Dominican Republic, Peru and South Africa, as well as ESO, IAU and SKAO.

If approved, the expert group will report to the STSC and monitor the impact of satellites on astronomy, seek input from stakeholders and suggest possible mitigation measures.

“There is a cascading effect of the discussions at COPUOS that can influence governments and businesses to act,” Andrew Williams, ESO’s external relations officer, said in a statement. “From the significant number of countries from all regions of the world who have expressed support for our proposal, we hope we can find a way forward at the main meeting of the committee.”

COPUOS will hold its main session in June, after which the organizations hope to see the proposal passed, as well as other solutions to the problem. Today, there are 8,000 active and defunct satellites in orbit, and that number is expected to skyrocket with as many as 100,000 satellites deployed in the next decade, according to ESO.

That adds up to a dizzying array of satellites, with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin building Internet mega-constellations in low-Earth orbit, and the relatively smaller company AST SpaceMobile launching a massive broadband satellite as bright as the stars of Orion. The orbiting satellites interfere with ground-based sky observations by adding a lot of noise to images, which they do by reflecting sunlight. The satellites corrupt scientific data collected by astronomers and appear as bright streaks in astronomical images.

“If we get to a point where there are 100,000 or more satellites, whatever measures the companies can take, they will have a substantial impact on astronomy,” Williams said. “There is also the danger that our ability to discover potentially dangerous asteroids will be compromised, and that the pristine sky that has been a constant for humanity will be damaged.”

SpaceX is working with the Federation of Astronomical Societies in an effort to mitigate the effects of its Starlink satellites on telescopes’ view of the sky. Possible solutions include using less reflective materials and changing the orientation of satellites in space. ESO and its partners hope for a joint effort between the satellite industry, government and astronomers “to strike a satisfactory balance between the necessity of the evolution of the space economy in low Earth orbit and the need to of astronomy and the pristine visibility of the night sky,” ESO wrote in its statement.

More: Huge ‘cell phone towers in space’ pose a major threat to radio astronomy, scientists warn

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