The constellation of Starlink Internet communications satellites has exceeded 5,000, a goal that was unimaginable only a few years ago and was achieved after the launch of 23 satellites by a Falcon 9 rocket that took place at 00:20 Italian time on October 31, 2023 from Cape Canaveral. (Florida). Elon Musk’s giant SpaceX constellation is not alone: the OneWeb, China SatNet and Amazon Kuiper constellations will soon be completed as well. Together, these satellites will make it possible to provide important services, especially in areas that are difficult to reach with normal communications, but at the same time they threaten new dangers: in such a crowded Earth orbit, there is dangerous space debris, the upper atmosphere is increasingly polluted and observations Astrology is increasingly difficult.
“Objectively, about fifteen years ago, huge constellations of satellites like these would have been unthinkable,” Piero Benvenuti, of the University of Padua and interim Secretary-General of the International Astronomical Union, told Italian news agency ANSA. It was opened by SpaceX, the Texas-based company founded by Elon Musk, which has cut launch costs with its reusable rockets while also creating a constellation to provide internet from space. The first launch of Starlink operational satellites dates back to May 24, 2019, and within a few years it witnessed the placement of more than 5,000 satellites in orbit, more precisely 5,011, of which about 30 are no longer operational, according to the specialized website. It’s run by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomy and space enthusiast who tracks all the satellites launched in recent years.
“Starlink is a network that allows access to the Internet in a more flexible way than terrestrial networks. We have seen this in the case of ongoing conflicts and in the case of environmental disasters, but there is a price to be paid in the astronomical and long term.” “Notes on the environment,” Benvenuti added. In fact, recent studies have highlighted a significant increase in heavy elements and compounds in the upper atmosphere, possibly due to the disintegration of ignited satellites in the atmosphere and materials released during launches. “We are polluting the upper atmosphere without knowing what effects this may have on nature and health,” Benvenuti said.
A risk that will increase as the number of satellites in orbit increases: “To maintain constellations like Starlink, many launches need to be carried out, and there is also frequent replacement of satellites that have a fairly short lifetime and that re-enter the atmosphere within a short time.” With the latest launch, Starlink passed the symbolic threshold of 5,000 satellites, but it’s a number destined to grow, in theory. Their number is supposed to reach 40 thousand, to which new constellations will soon be added such as OneWeb, which is already operational but consists of a few hundred satellites, as well as Amazon’s Kuiper and China’s China SatNet network. “It is not easy to know with certainty how many constellations will actually be created – said Benvenuti – because so far the applications for licenses submitted to the Geneva-based International Telecommunications Organization concern about 500 thousand satellites, but perhaps many of these networks will be “They will never be born. However, we believe that in the next few years we will have about 100,000 satellites in orbit.”
Adriano Fontana, director of research at the National Institute of Astrophysics, added that this is a significant problem for the scientific world because “massive constellations can particularly affect observations in the visible light bands and in the radio bands used in radio astronomy.” He pointed out, “Therefore, it is necessary – as he pointed out – to find a compromise between developing the sector and the needs of the astronomical community.”