Washington-OneWeb, a large constellation satellite company, may resume operations. This is a new issue for astronomers who have been concerned about the impact SpaceX’s Starlink satellite will have on their observations.
OneWeb, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March, announced on July 3 that the British government and Indian telecommunications company Bharti Global would provide $1 billion in new funds to recapitalize the company. The proposal is awaiting approval by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court at a hearing on July 10.
OneWeb stated that the new funding will allow the company to “execute a complete end-to-end implementation of the OneWeb system,” but did not elaborate on these plans. After placing 74 satellites in an initial constellation of 650 satellites into orbit, the company suspended launches after submitting Chapter 11. However, in May, the company submitted a proposal to the Federal Communications Commission to add 48,000 satellites to its constellation.
The prospect of the reorganized OneWeb resuming the launch of hundreds or tens of thousands of satellites is a new question for astronomers. Astronomers said during the annual meeting of the European Astronomical Society held online on July 3 that these satellites are of particular interest because of their high altitude.
“The biggest problem is satellites in low-Earth orbit far above 600 kilometers,” said Tony Tyson, chief scientist of the Vila Rubin Observatory, a wide-field telescope under construction in Chile. The higher the altitude of the satellite, the longer it will be visible after sunset and before sunrise. “They are on all night in the summer.”
OneWeb satellites orbit at an altitude of 1,200 kilometers. Although they are too faint to be seen with the naked eye, their brightness is about 8, but they are still bright enough to cause problems for professional astronomers.
“It is clear that the huge constellation of 50,000 high-altitude satellites poses the greatest threat to visible astronomy,” said Olivier Hainaut, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory, who simulated the impact of satellite constellations on terrestrial astronomy.
When Chapter 11 of OneWeb was released, the company had just started discussing the impact of its satellites on observations with astronomers. A working group of the American Astronomical Society held a conference call with OneWeb on this issue before going bankrupt.
Some astronomers said at the meeting that they would expect the British government, as one of the new owners of OneWeb, to intervene on this issue. “We have not heard anything from the British government,” Hainaut told a meeting a few hours after OneWeb announced the deal.
Royal Astronomical Society Deputy Executive Director Robert Messi said at a press conference after the meeting that OneWeb did participate in its association’s January meeting on this issue. After filing for bankruptcy protection, “we think they are gone.” “Then, curiously, they submitted a license application for 48,000 satellites, which surprised people.”
“I hope that the British government will use the influence it has now to help ensure that they become a good partner in this area. And cooperate with the astronomy and space science communities,” he said.
Astronomers waiting for the VisorSat
conference compared OneWeb to SpaceX. The latter launched the Starlink satellite for the first time in more than a year, prompting astronomers to warn of the impact of such satellites in their observations.
Since Starlink was first launched in May 2019, astronomers have met with SpaceX regularly and the company has been working hard to reduce the brightness of its satellites. In January this year, it launched an experimental satellite called “DarkSat”, which darkened its surface to reduce the reflectivity of the satellite. In June, it started launching “VisorSats”, Starlink satellites are equipped with awnings that can block sunlight from reaching reflective surfaces.
The first VisorSat has not yet reached its orbit, so astronomers have not yet been able to determine its effectiveness. “There are many people who will measure it immediately after it is in place,” Hainaut told a news conference. “This is a matter of weeks.” 4,444 astronomers expect VisorSat to be significantly dimmer than the unmodified Starlink satellite, aiming to reach the seventh degree. Tyson said that in terms of the worst impact of the satellites on the Rubin Observatory observations, “we are pretty confident that the seventh-class satellite will get us out of trouble.” The
Starlink satellites will still leave traces of interference in the image, but Tyson praised SpaceX for its efforts to mitigate the worst effects of the constellation. “It looks like SpaceX’s glare mitigation work is on the right track, and it’s actually an example for the industry,” he said. Patricia Cooper, vice president of government relations for 4,444 SpaceX satellites, told the meeting that the company has taken other steps to mitigate Starlink’s impact on astronomy, including lowering the altitude of some of its satellites from 1,100 kilometers to 550 kilometers. . they also benefit the Operational Safety space. “I don’t want us to fly any of our future satellites to higher altitudes,” he said.
Cooper praised the “powerful and frank conversations” between the company and astronomers, many of whom harshly criticized Starlink at the start of last year’s launch for promoting these improvements. “We have helped make people aware that constellations can be a problem in astronomy,” he said. “We are a company that has attracted a lot of attention, be it good or bad.”