Billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk can be a controversial figure. Not surprisingly, one of his projects has managed to frustrate stargazers.
Hundreds of satellites owned by Musk’s company, SpaceX, have been launched as part of Starlink, a project to increase global internet coverage, but their presence is disrupting observations of the night sky.
Irish comedian and amateur astronomer Dara Ó Briain was one of many people to post on social media, complaining after a number of the satellites were seen moving across the sky on Sunday.
“Yep, just saw them too. It’s the Starlink satellite network, and Elon Musk wants to put a 1000 of them up,” wrote Ó Briain in response to another stargazer on Twitter. “There goes the night sky.”
However Robert Massey from the UK’s Royal Astronomical Society told CNN that the satellites’ long-term impact on the sky depends on their final positioning.
“There’s a lot of variability,” he said, adding that the Starlink satellites are more visible now than they will be in the future because the latest batch was only launched on March 18.
Musk eventually plans to launch more than 40,000 satellites that will blanket the planet in cheap, high-speed connectivity. The aim is to reach billions of people around the world without internet access and compete with traditional ground-based service providers.
Satellites can be visible from Earth, although they are usually quite faint. But when their panels reflect a “burst” of sunlight back to Earth, they can appear brighter for a brief period, according to National Geographic.
Those streaks of bright light can obstruct the astronomical objects just underneath them and could trigger false signals in telescopes, Nature reported.
Other companies such as Amazon and Canada’s Telesat are planning their own constellations, raising concerns not just about Starlink satellites’ impact on visibility of the night sky but worries about space debris and the risk of in-orbit collisions.
Amateur stargazers are not the only ones worried.
In November, Clara Martínez-Vázquez, an astronomer at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Coquimbo, Chile, tweeted that the bright lights reflected by the satellites interfered with a high-powered camera used to observe other galaxies.
“Rather depressing… This is not cool!” she wrote.
Musk has repeatedly attempted to assure the public that Starlink will not contribute to either such problems. SpaceX says it has been taking steps to mitigate the impacts of its satellites.
In November, a spokesperson told CNN the company is speaking with leading astronomy groups to find ways that the satellites won’t disrupt their work.
SpaceX is also testing whether a black coating on its satellites can reduce visibility, and the company said it will can adjust some of the satellites’ orbits if necessary.
Massey said the Royal Astronomical Society had been in touch with SpaceX to discuss the company’s plans.
“To their credit we’ve had good conversations,” he said, underlining that it is in the society’s interest to enter into talks with every company that plans to launch satellites. “There isn’t a regulatory framework that protects us,” said Massey.
This means stargazers are reliant on the goodwill of these companies and have to appeal to a sense of shared human heritage.
“To some extent we all have a right to a view of the sky,” said Massey.
CNN has contacted SpaceX about the most recent criticisms.
CNN’s Scottie Andrew and Jackie Wattles contributed to this report.