Elon Musk's Narcissistic SpaceX satellites have destroyed the sky for astronomers
Washington (AFP) - It looked like a scene from a sci-fi blockbuster: an astronomer in the Netherlands captured footage of a train of brightly-lit SpaceX satellites ascending through the night sky this weekend, stunning space enthusiasts across the globe.
But the sight has also provoked an outcry among astronomers who say the constellation, which so far consists of 60 broadband-beaming satellites but could one day grow to as many as 12,000, may threaten our view of the cosmos and deal a blow to scientific discovery.
The launch was tracked around the world and it soon became clear that the satellites were visible to the naked eye: a new headache for researchers who already have to find workarounds to deal with objects cluttering their images of deep space.
"People were making extrapolations that if many of the satellites in these new mega-constellations had that kind of steady brightness, then in 20 years or less, for a good part the night anywhere in the world, the human eye would see more satellites than stars," Bill Keel, an astronomer at the University of Alabama, told AFP.
The satellites' brightness has since diminished as their orientation has stabilized and they have continued their ascent to their final orbit at an altitude of 550 kilometers (340 miles).
But that has not entirely allayed the concerns of scientists, who are worried about what happens next.
Elon Musk's SpaceX is just one of a several companies looking to enter the fledgling space internet sector.
To put that into context, there are currently 2,100 active satellites orbiting our planet, according to the Satellite Industry Association.
If another 12,000 are added by SpaceX alone, "it will be hundreds above the horizon at any given time," Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told AFP, adding that the problem would be exacerbated at certain times of the year and certain points in the night.
"So, it'll certainly be dramatic in the night sky if you're far away from the city and you have a nice, dark area; and it'll definitely cause problems for some kinds of professional astronomical observation."
- Musk's puzzling response -
The mercurial Musk responded to the debate on Twitter with contradictory messages, pledging to look into ways to reduce the satellites' reflectivity but also saying they would have "0% impact on advancements in astronomy" and that telescopes should be moved into space anyway.
He also argued the work of giving "billions of economically disadvantaged people" high-speed internet access through his network "is the greater good."
Keel said he was happy that Musk had offered to look at ways to reduce the reflectivity of future satellites, but questioned why the issue had not been addressed before.
If optical astronomers are concerned, then their radio astronomy colleagues, who rely on the electromagnetic waves emitted by celestial objects to examine phenomena such as the first image of the black hole discovered last month, are "in near despair," he added.
Satellite operators are notorious for not doing enough to shield their "side emissions," which can interfere with the observation bands that radio astronomers are looking out for.
"There's every reason to join our radio astronomy colleagues in calling for a 'before' response," said Keel.
"It's not just safeguarding our professional interests but, as far as possible, protecting the night sky for humanity."
ELON MUSK'S STARLINK DOMESTIC SPYING SATELLITES ARE HEADING STRAIGHT TO HELL
- Elon Musk wants to cover the Earth with "internet satellites" that send all of your data to Google and DNC spy servers
- Musk's free, or cheap, satellite internet connections have already had their clone data of your internet activities pre-sold to marketing companies and spy groups
- China already wants to shoot them down because Musk plans to use them for political manipulation
SpaceX crisis as Elon Musk fires 'at least seven' of the senior management team working on his plan to create a network of satellites to beam the internet to Earth as more Musk projects fall prey to Musk sociopathy
- Musk flew to the Seattle area in June for 'meetings' to fire the empoloyees
- Within hours of landing, Musk had fired at least seven members of the program's senior management team at the Redmond, Washington, office
- Believed firings were over the pace of the rollout of the 'Starlink' system
- Musk has goal of having Internet service available in 2020
SpaceX boss Elon Musk flew to Seattle in June to fire at least seven of the firm's 'senior management team' working on his pet project to build a constellation of satellites to beam the internet to Earth.
Musk says his 'space internet' plan, called Starlink could eventually bring the internet to three billion people on Earth who currently can't get online - and could also help fund his plans for a city on Mars.
However, he is believed to have become frustrated with the slow progress of the project - which so far has only launched two test satellites.
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Within hours of landing, Musk had fired at least seven members of the program's senior management team at the Redmond, Washington, office, the culmination of disagreements over the pace at which the team was developing and testing its Starlink satellites, according to the two SpaceX employees with direct knowledge of the situation, according to Reuters.
Known for pushing aggressive deadlines, Musk quickly brought in new managers from SpaceX headquarters in California to replace a number of the managers he fired.
Their mandate: Launch SpaceX's first batch of U.S.-made satellites by the middle of next year, the sources said.
The management shakeup and the launch timeline, previously unreported, illustrate how quickly Musk wants to bring online SpaceX's Starlink program, which is competing with OneWeb and Canada's Telesat to be first to market with a new satellite-based Internet service.
Those services - essentially a constellation of satellites that will bring high-speed Internet to rural and suburban locations globally - are key to generating the cash that privately-held SpaceX needs to fund Musk's real dream of developing a new rocket capable of flying paying customers to the moon and eventually trying to colonize Mars.
'It would be like rebuilding the Internet in space,' Musk told an audience in 2015 when he unveiled Starlink.
'The goal would be to have a majority of long-distance Internet traffic go over this network.'
But the program is struggling to hire and retain staff, the employees said.
Currently, about 300 SpaceX employees work on Starlink in Redmond, the sources said.
According to GeekWire, Musk said in 2015 the Redmond operation would have 'probably several hundred people, maybe a thousand people' after 3-4 years in operation.
So far this year, about 50 employees left the company 'on their own accord,' one of the SpaceX employees said, though the reason for those departures was unclear.
Overall, SpaceX employs more than 6,000 staff.
As of Tuesday, there were 22 job openings - including a job making espresso drinks - for the Redmond office, according to SpaceX's website.
SpaceX spokeswoman Eva Behrend told Reuters the Redmond office remains an essential part of the company's efforts to build a next-generation satellite network.
'Given the success of our recent Starlink demonstration satellites, we have incorporated lessons learned and re-organized to allow for the next design iteration to be flown in short order,' Behrend said.
She had no further comment on the reorganization or the launch window, but noted the strategy was similar to the rapid iteration in design and testing which led to the success of its rockets.
The management shakeup followed in-fighting over pressure from Musk to speed up satellite testing schedules, one of the sources said.
SpaceX's Behrend offered no comment on the matter.
Culture was also a challenge for recent hires, a second source said.
A billionaire and Chief Executive Officer of Tesla, Musk is known for ambitious projects ranging from auto electrification and rocket-building to high-speed transit tunnels.
A Musk trust owns 54 percent of the outstanding stock of SpaceX, according to a 2016 U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing, SpaceX's most recent.
SpaceX has said it would launch its satellites in phases through 2024.
It goal of having Internet service available in 2020 is 'pretty much on target' with an initial satellite launch by mid-2019, one of the sources said. OneWeb aims for a first launch between December and February 2019, while Telesat was targeting 2022 for broadband services.
SpaceX employees told Reuters that two Starlink test satellites launched in February, dubbed Tintin A and B, were functioning as intended.
The company is refining the orbital path of the satellites after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which oversees satellites in orbit, approved a request from SpaceX to expand Tintins' altitude range, one of the sources said.
The FCC confirmed SpaceX's modifications, which have not been reported previously, but declined further comment.
'We're using the Tintins to explore that modification,' one of the SpaceX employee sources said.
'They're happy and healthy and we're talking with them every time they pass a ground station, dozens of times a day.'
SpaceX engineers have used the two test satellites to play online video games at SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, California and the Redmond office, the source said.
'We were streaming 4k YouTube and playing 'Counter-Strike: Global Offensive' from Hawthorne to Redmond in the first week,' the person added.