Elon Musk’s SpaceX is preparing to launch 60 Starlink “internet satellites” into space on 29 January amid critics’ fury over the resulting “wall of space junk” flooding Earth's orbit.
The Starlink satellites are tightly packed into a 229-foot-tall Falcon 9 rocket, which is currently on a launchpad at Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
It's scheduled to liftoff early Wednesday morning to carry the satellites into space, where they will orbit 341 miles above Earth, in a launch originally set for 27 January, but postponed over strong winds.
Now targeting Wednesday, January 29 at 9:06 a.m., 14:06 UTC, for launch of Starlink due to poor weather in the recovery area— SpaceX (@SpaceX) January 27, 2020
The current launch comes amid a flurry of disapproval, as critics from the ranks of the astronomy community have been repeatedly voicing concerns that humanity could be trapped on Earth by a “wall of space junk” cluttering up Earth's orbit.
As close to 200 satellites have already been launched, with the tech billionaire given the green light to send tens of thousands more into orbit, some scientists suggest Musk's plan, albeit rooted in good intentions, could generate catastrophic space clutter, eventually blocking rockets from leaving Earth, in an effect dubbed the "Kessler syndrome".
Amid fears sparked by the fact that thousands of years would be required for any SpaceX satellite left in Earth’s orbit to descend and burn up in the atmosphere, Dr Stijn Lemmens of the European Space Agency was quoted by Scientific American as saying:
"The worst case is: You launch all your satellites, you go bankrupt, and they all stay there. Then you have thousands of new satellites without a plan of getting them out of there. And you would have a Kessler-type of syndrome."
Mega-constellations like Starlink will results in 67,000 potential collisions per year, aerospace engineer Glenn Peterson warns.
"This is something we need to pay attention to… We have to be proactive," MIT Technology Review quotes the scientist as saying.
Earlier, prominent theoretical astrophysicist Ethan Siegel wrote in Forbes that Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellites are being sent into orbit so frequently that “it will likely end ground-based astronomy as we know it,” by polluting the night sky to a degree when ground-based observatories worth hundreds of millions of dollars could be rendered useless.
That's picture of 19 (!) Starlink sattelites that didn't allow observatory in northern Chile to work properly. Great work, @elonmusk !— okkeypb (@okkeypb) November 24, 2019
Don't take that like I hate him, he's cool guy pic.twitter.com/My2w9pFwke
Siegel also cited an incident in September 2019 in which the European Space Agency had to move one of its satellites out of the way to protect it from colliding with a SpaceX Starlink satellite.
Against the chorus of concerned voices, the company has said it’s been taking measures to avoid drastic scenarios.
Thus, SpaceX says it has been launching satellites into a lower orbital plane to avoid collisions.
In a bid to allay concerns of the “debilitating threat” to astronomical infrastructures, SpaceX and Elon Musk have issued statements, promising to reduce the albedo (brightness) of the satellites, and adjust orientation on demand for astronomical experiments.
If @spacex and/or others get thousands of #Starlink (or whatever others call it) satellites into LEO, will we experience an overcrowded starry sky short after sunset and before sunrise? @elonmusk pic.twitter.com/zIa6ek8Vgs— S e h n C l e t 🦎 (@sehnclet) May 21, 2019
On the issue of the satellites’ operating solar panels, which deliver a reflection of the sun’s light back to earth, CEO Elon Musk insists they are programmed to go dark when stars are visible.
Elon Musk had also responded in late May last year that he had requested Starlink designers to make their satellites less reflective, with the company reportedly pledging to paint the Earth-facing side of its satellites black.
As of November 2019, SpaceX had deployed 122 satellites, with a total of nearly 12,000 satellites to be deployed by the mid-2020s. The number may possibly be extended to 42,000.
Elon Musk’s plan is to build a “mega-constellation” of Starlink satellites to ensure that internet users across the world could have 40 times faster internet speeds in any part of the globe.