Astronomers have warned that Elon Musk’s Starlink risks blocking out the stars to deep space telescopes and putting hundreds of millions of pounds of British investment in space exploration in jeopardy.
The Royal Astronomical Society has claimed that networks threatening to blanket the night sky in low-orbit small satellites could blind observatories through light pollution and radio interference.
Robert Massey, deputy executive director of the society, warned a “serious amount of public money” could be wasted if investments in radio telescopes were rendered blind by thousands of satellites.
Mr Musk’s Starlink, part of his SpaceX rocket company, is planning to launch more than 12,000 satellites that the hopes will provide internet connectivity to remote areas across the planet.
Rival ventures, such as OneWeb, which is backed by the UK Government, and Amazon are also planning to launch hundreds of satellites to provide rural broadband.
But astronomers have warned this will create light pollution that makes it harder for amateur astronomers to pick out planets and stars in the night’s sky.
They also argue that investments in radio telescopes, which use radio waves to search for the origins of the universe, could be at risk owing to interference.
Among these is the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a vast radio telescope in the Australian outback designed for deep space observation that has been in development for 30 years, and the Jodrell Bank Centre near Manchester.
The Government has committed £270m to the £1.5bn current cost of the SKA and spends tens of millions of pounds each year on other observatories.
Mr Massey said: “These communications satellites require powerful downlinks. Historically, you would put a radio telescope in a remote site without interference.
“But if you have a satellite constellation covering by design the surface of the earth there is nothing you can do about it. In a pessimistic scenario, we are shutting out a window on the universe.”
The SKA and Royal Astronomical Society have complained to Ofcom, the telecoms regulator, asking it to regulate the expansion of satellite constellations, including their impact on astronomy as part of licencing conditions.
Mr Massey said there was a further risk of the unregulated expansion of satellite launches from China or Russia. He said: “We can talk to Starlink and we can talk to OneWeb, but can we have the same conversation with companies in China or Russia if they launch systems?”