An artist's impression (not to scale) of constellation satellites in low Earth orbits. A SATCON1 report concluded that the effects of satellite constellations on astronomical research and on the human experience of the night sky range from
An artist's impression (not to scale) of constellation satellites in low Earth orbits. A 2020 SATCON1 report concluded that the effects of satellite constellations on astronomical research and on the human experience of the night sky range from "negligible" to "extreme." (NOIRLab/NSF/AURA/P. Marenfeld)

Canadian astronomers urge action on satellite constellations

Sky News This Week: A new report by Canadian scientists warns that we need to work on preserving our skies for scientific and cultural reasons.

SpaceX. OneWeb. Amazon. Telesat.

These are a handful of the companies that plan to send up constellations of mini-satellites in the coming years to provide broadband access to underserved areas. There are certainly those in Canada’s rural or northern areas that could benefit from better internet — not least Indigenous peoples — but a new report by Canadian scientists warns that we need to make sure to continue to preserve our skies for scientific and cultural reasons.

The submission to the government of Canada and the Canadian Space Agency was led by Aaron Boley, Canada Research Chair in Planetary Astronomy at an institution well-known for its astronomy research — the University of British Columbia.

“Mega constellations do have promise for bringing a lot of great things, and that does have to be recognized when we move forward,” Boley said in an interview. “Enhancing search and rescue capabilities and connectivity throughout the world are non-trivial things that we can’t just discount. At the same time, we’ve got to make sure that whatever is put out there is done in a way that does not preclude us from continuing to develop space and does not severely damage the night sky.”

Distribution of satellites over the Earth, as projected onto latitude and longitude coordinates, on a Lambert Conformal map projection. | SkyNews
Distribution of satellites over the Earth, as projected onto latitude and longitude coordinates, on a Lambert Conformal map projection. (Aaron Boley, Samantha Lawler, Pauline Barmby, James Di Francesco, Andrew Falle, Jennifer Howse, JJ Kavelaars)

Boley said the first step is recognizing that low-Earth orbit — the region of space that includes the International Space Station and many small satellites these days — is an environment unto itself deserving of protection.

The effects of launching and landing rockets can affect the integrity of the ozone layer, and a recent CBC News report noted that these effects are accelerating as launches increase. The increasing number of satellites close to Earth also poses an increased risk of collision; since individual satellites travel at high speed, any crash could produce a large number of pieces that lock out the ability to safely launch again for months or years.

Naturally, space treaties are international and formed more on agreements between nations that were secured in the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Outer Space Treaty. They largely hold responsibility for launches with the launching state (or country), which would hold jurisdiction over any companies that are a part of that state.

Ultimately, however, what this legal regime means is that space is a shared environment between the world and that how to protect it should come not only from Canada, but Canada’s agreements with other nations, Boley said. Canada, happily, is adept at international cooperation. After all, we built our human exploration program on flying astronauts on American space vehicles thanks to providing handy Canadian robotics like Canadarm and Dextre.

Companies are testing out a few ideas to reduce the effects of streaking or flashing that satellites can produce in low Earth orbit; such effects make it difficult for Indigenous people to view a clean sky for rituals, for astronomers to do wide-field astronomical surveys, or for planetary defense officials to easily search for asteroids. SpaceX, for example, has experimented with putting coatings on its Starlink satellites. “But it has secondary applications such as heating the satellite, and it could be heating it more than what the satellite was designed to take,” Boley said.

Other ideas could include adding more materials or adding visors to the satellite, but these increase the launching mass, cost and complication for what are supposed to be simple satellites, Boley added. The visors in particular make the satellite streak brightness variable, which is even harder to filter out of professional images than a single, consistent streak. Such editing of astronomical images therefore increases the cost of astronomy observations, which are already costly due to the maintenance costs of professional observatories and the high technical capability of the people operating the observatories or doing the observations, Boley said.

Nevertheless, Boley urged that conversations continue between Canada and its international partners. The report urges that Canada work on a “dark and quiet skies” report on both national and international levels. It also suggests that Canada update its broadcasting licenses for any company that wants to provide internet, television or similar satellite services in Canada; even if the company is from the United States or Europe, for example, Canada could stipulate it will only accept such services if the satellite broadcasting the signal happens to be dark-sky compliant.

“We have gotten a lot of support, and I’m very happy to say that we have had contact with the Canadian Space Agency about it, as well as Global Affairs Canada, to discuss it further,” Boley said of the report, which was put online in pre-publication format roughly a month ago.

“People are keen on listening … because I think people are recognizing that there’s a lot of potential within the way we’re using space, but then there are a lot of problems. It comes back to so many unfortunate [historical] examples we have such as, ‘Oh the oceans are so big; there’s no way we could pollute it.’ Yeah, there it is. ‘The atmosphere is so big. There’s no way we could change its composition.’ Well, we are.”

This biweekly column by Canadian science and space journalist Elizabeth Howell focuses on a trending news topic in Canadian astronomy and space.

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