People are complaining that Elon Musk’s satellites are too bright

Thursday, 23rd April 2020, 3:18 pm
Updated Thursday, 23rd April 2020, 3:19 pm

Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, has said the company is currently "fixing" the increased brightness of its satellites.

The announcement came as a response to complaints about the brightness of the Starlink satellites on Twitter.

“Is there a reason they’ve been brighter and more noticeable lately? I feel like tons of people are spotting them all of a sudden and they went fairly unnoticed before,” the user asked.

Sign up to our daily Hemel Today newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Responding to the post, Mr Musk explained that this perceivable increase in the brightness of SpaceX’s satellites, was due to the angle of the satellites’ solar panels, before confirming the company was "fixing it now".

SpaceX has been launching large batches of satellites as part of its Starlink project.

What is the Starlink project?

SpaceX’s Starlink project aims to improve global internet coverage, by creating a network of 12,000 satellites which will send broadband internet access back down to earth.

The most recent satellite launch took place on Wednesday (22 Apr) after several satellites - which are the ones now visible from earth - were launched in the last month.

Why are the satellites so bright?

The satellites have now achieved a certain orbital position that has made them easier for people to spot while looking up at the night sky. Equally their size and proximity to earth has also increased their brightness, compared to other satellites.

Since these satellites are of the smaller variety, they are sent into lower orbit, and therefore seen more easily, compared to larger satellites, which tend to be sent into higher orbit.

The visible satellites also reflect lots of light on their wide, flat panels.

What is being done to fix this?

SpaceX is working to block reflections on future satellites by creating a form of sunshade.

Additionally, over the next few months, the satellites will use built-in engines to travel further away from the Earth. They will also rotate their solar panels, from their current positions, towards the sun.

All of these changes will make them less visible to people on earth.

Causing problems for astronomers

The visibility of the SpaceX satellites has already been causing problems for astronomers, even while they are currently in a fixed orbit.

While these solutions may make the satellites less visible to the naked eye, they won't help astronomers, who have complained that they are disrupting their ability to observe and photograph astronomical objects.

Some astronomers have claimed the problem will only get worse as more of these satellites become operational, and begin to redirect their solar panels toward the sun. They say it will create even more light pollution.

Additionally, the problem will continue to worsen, as more are launched to become part of the 12,000 strong network, claims Dr Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Centre for Astrophysics - a research centre at Harvard University.

The more satellites that join the fleet increase the possibility of crashes between low orbit objects and the satellites, and could result in materials falling back to earth, further clouding astronomers' visibility.

However Dr McDowell acknowledged SpaceX’s attempts to address the issues, saying, "I applaud the fact that [SpaceX] has really been trying to find ways to make them less bright."