Thousands and Thousands and Thousands of New Satellites

Several enterprising companies are launching thousands of satellites into near-earth orbit to introduce unprecedented broadband internet access to people in even the most areas of Planet Earth.

“The idea of having a series of low altitude satellites so that you can have internet everywhere on the globe, including Antarctica and the oceans, is very attractive,” says Rice University astronomer Dr. Patricia Reiff. But there is a trade-off. “If you have the spacecraft low, then your receivers don’t have to be as powerful. You can do it with a handheld phone. But you need a lot more of them.” Lots and lots of them.

It will require quantity to improve the quality, and availability, of the inner-connectedness that a modern world requires, and there oddly isn’t a traffic cop in space to keep them from colliding. The United Nations estimates close to four billion people don’t have internet access yet. As the vision of a connected universe progresses, each of the major satellite communications companies are launching their constellations of thousands of satellites at set altitudes to prevent them from smashing into each other. “The Kuiper is planned to have three different altitude ranges. Because they’re not at the same altitude range as Space X, then they’re not going to run into Space X. They might run into their own,” says Dr. Reiff.

Kuiper, owned by Amazon, is just preparing to get off the ground, applying for the necessary permits as operations unfold. Space X’s Starlink satellites began deploying last year with 60 total, and this year are adding another 60 with each launch aiming for a total of 1,584 by next year. They have another 30,000 on tap to add to the 12,000 that have already received FCC approval, and there are other companies as well. It’s going to get very crowded.

The downside is the obstruction of the wonder of the galaxy that astronomers are already complaining about. Space X has responded by developing a less-reflective coat to their craft. Because all of the satellites are on predictable courses, scientists will be able to accommodate their telescope needs. But future generations will never have the unobstructed view of the cosmos that you have. Behold the wonder while it lasts.

Dr. Reiff has a Zoom night sky program each week that tells you what to look for. It's free.

She says tonight, watch the Perseid meteor shower, which is peaking. There are some spectacular views of planets also available, and this is what to look for Saturday morning.

photo: getty images

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