A UBC astronomy professor thinks a “space traffic management crisis” is brewing.
British Columbians marveled at a series of satellite trains that were launched into space over the weekend.
The slowly moving train of lights startled many and left many wondering what was flying above them.
Reports of sightings began arriving on Saturday evening; some BC residents took to social media to ask if it was a plane, train, UFO or alien.
A Vancouver resident captured the lights on August 19 just before 10 p.m. from Vancouver. In the video, a person can be heard saying “I’ve never seen… what could this be? Tell me?”
Another person in the video says, “It’s like someone is pulling something.”
Turns out no one was towing anything; rather, it was a train of satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink network.
SpaceX tweeted about the deployment of 53 satellites on August 19.
“The Starlink project operates about 30 to 40 percent of all satellites in low Earth orbit,” says Aaron Boley, associate professor in UBC’s Department of Physics and Astronomy. “And so their method of launching so many satellites at once in order to maintain this big constellation, that’s why we see these sites…now it’s frequent enough that people can actually notice it.
Boley explained that the satellites are “stacked tightly” in the rockets; after launch, they are dispersed at very low relative velocities. That’s what causes this chain, Boley told Glacier Media.
Over time, this chain expands by design as satellites are tested to ensure they are operational.
“Then they are elevated to their upper orbit, where they are going to have their primary mission,” he says.
Space congestion and pollution are the main concerns
Boley believes there is a “space traffic management crisis” brewing with the rapid development of low Earth orbit. He describes it as “unsustainable”.
“There are so many things coming out, and it’s all happening so fast. And we have so many different operators that there’s a good chance we’ll have a collision, a big space accident, and that has ramifications for everyone,” he says.
Debris, even small pieces in space, could cause a satellite to catastrophically fail and disable it, Boley notes.
“You can blast it into many other pieces. Debris is therefore a very big problem and with so much material up there it creates a huge management problem.
Boley has worked with the International Astronomical Union’s Center for Dark and Quiet Skies Protection as an astronomer and says these satellites also create the problem of “light pollution”.
“We actually see so many satellites that they are now interfering with astronomical observations with astrophotography with just an appreciation of the night sky,” he says.
Even though the Starlink satellite train darkens as it climbs to its operational altitude, it says it is still visible.
“There are now many satellites strictly in the night sky. It’s hard to go to a really dark place and be able to see a sky that isn’t crossed by satellites,” says Boley.
There are guidelines and rules for launching into space, but they are not uniform across the world, he adds.
“Are we taking the right steps to launch it? asks Boley. “We don’t have a very good liaison, like the debris regime, we don’t have a space traffic management regime, so we don’t have an international understanding of all the implications or how we deal with even all the changes in the upper atmosphere that will occur from that.”
Once enthused about Starlink, Boley says he lost his shine.
“I’m not so excited about these anymore,” he says.
“These trains, to me, are an indication of unsustainable practices, with just the sheer number of satellites going up. Some of the issues are that there’s real pollution, like real pollution that’s happening because of this from that of the rocket launchers deposit materials in the upper atmosphere.
For now, the risk to people on the ground is very low, he says. But the risk to society of something happening is “not insignificant”, according to Boley.
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