The sluggish confrontation between astronomers and space companies like SpaceX, planning to "seed" near-earth space with a huge number of satellites, has moved into the legal plane. In the near future, the UN ad hoc committee will start developing standards for regulating orbital groupings: in particular, it will have to develop standards for the radiation reflected by the vehicles.
According to the Space.com portal, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has sent an official appeal to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS). The essence of this document was explained to journalists by Thomas Schildknecht, who holds the position of Deputy Director of the Astronomical Institute of the University of Bern, which represents Switzerland at the IAU.
The international community of astronomers has literally asked the UN to protect the darkness of the night sky in the name of science and future discoveries. The accompanying speech by Schildknecht took place in the framework of the European Conference on Space Debris, which was held online from 20 to 23 April. The scientist recalled that, despite the promising benefits of large-scale satellite constellations for the world economy, they severely poison the lives of astronomers.
LEOs illuminate areas of images during observations, and sometimes make them completely impossible. For the general public, the "train" of Starlink satellites rising to working height looks like an outlandish sight. And for an astronomer it is a "black mark" that promises a bunch of new problems in the course of scientific work. To protect one of the greatest treasures of humanity - the clear night sky - the UN needs to develop regulations that limit both the electromagnetic waves emitted and reflected by satellites.
And it's not just about visible light. Radio frequency, infrared radiation - spacecraft in low orbit add a huge amount of noise to these spectra. And as the size of the groups grows, the situation will only get worse. Moreover, the UN is required not only to create some recommendations, but to make them binding on the rules. Ideally, of course. In fact, neither the IAU nor COPUOS has any legal force in this matter and is not expected to.
The scale of the problem
Today, the number of operating Starlink satellites launched by SpaceX is gradually approaching the 1,500 mark. As a pioneer in the field of "mega-constellations" in low Earth orbit, the Elon Musk space company was the first to fill all the bumps. At first, the devices released from the payload dispenser (60 at a time) simply delighted bystanders with their appearance. The footage of the "sky train" flew around the world.
However, astronomers quickly sounded the alarm. It turned out that glare from antennas and hull parts of Starlink spacecraft is a colossal problem. The phenomenon was known before: satellites have existed for more than a decade, but their number has never grown so quickly. In fact, SpaceX has increased the human constellation of LEO satellites by 50% in less than two years. And in the next five years, their number (not only by this company) will increase tenfold.
OneWeb actively displays its own "constellation", and in the near future it will be joined by the Kuiper project from Blue Origin. Finally, similar satellite Internet systems have been announced by companies and government agencies from the United States, Europe, China and Russia. Some of them are going to limit themselves to a few hundred devices, and some threaten to launch thousands. In any case, the problem is global, and it had to be solved yesterday.
As a recent study by an international group of astronomers shows, global light pollution has increased by 10% due to spacecraft alone. In absolute terms, this may not be much, but for the sensitive matrices of telescopes, the noise is already noticeable, and what will happen in a few years is not difficult to imagine. The most pessimistic scientists insist that the current situation threatens a catastrophe: they say, we can overlook, for example, a dangerous asteroid approaching the Earth. Their more realistic comrades remind that the work of astronomers is not sugar anyway, but with additional difficulties from the "constellations" of satellites will turn into hell.
Is there a solution
One of the reasons why the International Astronomical Union finally turned to the UN is that the problem can be solved practically. As mentioned above, SpaceX was a pioneer in the field of large-scale light pollution of the sky, but was the first to try to fulfill the wishes of scientists. For example, revisions of satellites covered with matte black paint have already been tested. The solution turned out to be so-so: the visible radiation fell by half, but increased sharply in the infrared range. But progress is going on, and the cooperation of astronomers with SpaceX engineers is developing.
To satisfy the wishes of scientists, the apparent magnitude of LEO satellites must be less than -7. And the height of their orbit is no more than 600 kilometers. Astronomers would then receive at least three to four hours of observations every night with minimal interference. And if SpaceX is collaborating with scientists and trying to do something about the problem, then other companies do not make contact. John Barentine, director of public relations for the International Dark-Sky Association, told The Washington Post about this complexity. It was he and his colleagues from Europe who calculated the total light pollution from satellites in the above study.
What the outcome of this whole story will be is difficult to predict. Of course, no one will sharply prohibit the launch of new satellites. Such "constellations" promise too great advantages to the countries that possess them. But the creation of new rules and regulations for low-orbit spacecraft is quite realistic. The question is, how will the UN this time be able to convince all participating countries to agree with them. Recall that a promising 1979 document, known as the "Lunar Agreement", was supposed to regulate the basic rules for conducting activities outside the earth's atmosphere. But not a single space power has ratified it for more than 40 years (neither the United States, nor Russia, nor China).