Megaconstellations of satellites will be visible worldwide but expected to cause most significant light pollution at 50 degrees latitude

News Release Release Date: September 13, 2021 10:00 a.m.

The planned launch of thousands of communications satellites over the next few years is expected to have the most impact on our view of the night sky over many cities in Canada including Calgary, Regina, Vancouver, and Winnipeg, and in Europe including Antwerp, Cologne, Dresden, and London, among others.

Researchers at the University of Regina, University of British Columbia and University of Toronto have determined that, due to geometry and selected orbits, these satellites are expected to generate the most light pollution near 50 degrees latitude North and South.

“The launch of thousands of communications satellites currently being planned over the next few years will have a devastating effect on research astronomy and star gazing worldwide,” said Samantha Lawler, Assistant Professor of Astronomy with Campion College and the Department of Physics at the University of Regina and lead researcher on the project.

Predictions for the optical brightness and on-sky distributions of Starlink, OneWeb, Kuiper, and StarNet/GW, were used to model the impact of an estimated 65,000 satellites, as seen from different places on Earth, in different seasons and times of night.

Several companies are planning to launch megaconstellations of thousands of communication satellites, which would increase the number of active satellites in Low Earth Orbit at least twenty-fold in the next few years. With almost 2,000 satellites SpaceX's Starlink is currently the largest planned and is adding 60 new satellites every 2-3 weeks.

“While orbital infrastructure has many potential benefits, such as helping provide internet access to rural and remote locations, when deployed recklessly, it could limit humanity’s ability to develop Earth orbits or observe the cosmos,” says co-author Dr. Aaron Boley, Canada Research Chair in Planetary Astronomy and Associate Professor in University of British Columbia’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “Development must be done in ways that do not prevent others from accessing space or viewing the wonders of the night sky.”

The proliferation of new satellites will also contribute to atmospheric pollution, both on launch and re-entry, and drastically increase the very real threat of Kessler Syndrome. This syndrome describes a scenario where the number of objects in Low Earth Orbit is high enough that collisions between objects creates a cascade effect where each collision generates space debris that increases the likelihood of further collisions. This debris could render space activities and the use of satellites in specific orbital ranges impractical for long periods of time.

“As with any new technology, it’s important to analyze all of its possible impacts,” says Hanno Rein, co-author and an associate professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Unfortunately, he says much of this work wasn’t completed before the satellites were launched into space.

“You cannot escape this technology, whether at the North Pole or the equator, you will always see these satellites above you. This is such a fundamental change to our view of the sky that it requires greater scrutiny.”

“The research should be part of a larger dialogue, seeking cooperation among astronomers and satellite operators,” said Dr. Boley. “What we seek is a sustainable path forward, which allows the development of on-orbit infrastructure without causing unmanageable risks to operations in Earth’s orbit and environment, and does not cause substantial interference with research astronomy and public stargazing.”

The research published on the ArXiv pre-print server has also been submitted for publication in the peer reviewed journal The Astrophysical Journal. As part of this work, a web application has been developed allowing people to select a latitude, season and time of night to find out how many satellites will be in their night sky and how bright they will be: http://megaconstellations.hanno-rein.de/.

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Dr. Lawler can be reached through:

Everett Dorma
Advancement & Communications
University of Regina
Email: Everett.Dorma@uregina.ca
Phone: 306-337-8451

or    SJ Kotylak
       Marketing and Communications
       Campion College, U of R
       Email: SJ.KotylaK@uregina.ca
       Phone: 306-540-7161
Dr. Boley can be reached through:

Alex Walls (She, Her, Hers)
Media Relations
University of British Columbia
Phone: 778-984-6173
Email: alex.walls@ubc.ca
       Dr. Rein can be reached through:

       Don Campbell
       Marketing & Communications
       University of Toronto
       Phone: 416-208-2938
       Email: don.campbell@utoronto.ca
 

About the University of British Columbia

The University of British Columbia is a global centre for research and teaching, consistently ranked among the top 20 public universities in the world. Since 1915, UBC’s entrepreneurial spirit has embraced innovation and challenged the status quo. UBC encourages its students, staff and faculty to challenge convention, lead discovery and explore new ways of learning. At UBC, bold thinking is given a place to develop into ideas that can change the world.

About the University of Regina

The University of Regina—with campuses located on Treaty 4 and Treaty 6 territories, the ancestral lands of the Cree, Saulteaux, Dakota, Lakota and Nakoda nations and the homeland of the Métis—is a comprehensive, mid-sized university that traces its roots back to the creation of Regina College in 1911. Today, more than 16,000 students study within the University's 10 faculties, 25 academic departments/schools, 18 research centres and institutes, and three federated colleges (Campion College, First Nations University of Canada, and Luther College). The University of Regina has an established reputation for excellence and innovative programs that lead to undergraduate, master, and doctoral degrees.

About the University of Toronto Scarborough

The University of Toronto Scarborough is a place of energy, enthusiasm and passion. Our commitment to inclusive excellence attracts the brightest learners, scholars and employees from around the globe. Our success has been made possible by the opportunity given to us by our Indigenous hosts to operate on their territory, and we cherish our continuing partnerships with these communities. The University of Toronto Scarborough is an exciting campus with unlimited potential. Join us on our journey.

 

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