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Astronomers make an Earth Day plea to rein in satellites

Astronomers have issued an Earth Day call for environmentalism to be extended more fully to the final frontier, and for companies such as SpaceX and Amazon to dial back their plans for mega-constellations.

Among the authors of today’s commentary in the journal Nature Astronomy is Meredith Rawls of the University of Washington.

Astronomers have been raising concerns about the impact of having thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit for years, starting with SpaceX’s launch of the first operational satellites for its Starlink broadband constellation in 2019. Rawls and the other authors of today’s commentary stress that they aren’t just worried about interference with their astronomical observations, but are also concerned about the broader impact on appreciation of the night sky.

“We need all hands on deck to address the rapidly changing satellite situation if we can hope to co-create a future with dark and quiet skies for everyone,” Rawls, a research scientist with the Vera C. Rubin Observatory and UW’s DIRAC Institute, said in a news release.

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NASA pays out millions for future space communications

Six satellite ventures — including SpaceX’s Starlink network and Amazon’s Project Kuiper — are due to receive a total of $278.5 million in NASA funding to demonstrate next-generation space communication services in Earth orbit.

The Communications Services Project is intended to smooth the transition from NASA’s constellation of dedicated communication satellites, known as Tracking and Data Relay Satellites or TDRS, to a commercially operated network that draws upon multiple providers.

NASA has turned to similar public-private models for space services including cargo resupply and crew transportation to the International Space Station, as well as the future delivery of scientific experiments and astronauts to the lunar surface.

“By using funded Space Act Agreements, we’re able to stimulate industry to demonstrate end-to-end capability leading to operational service,” Eli Naffah, project manager for the Communications Services Project at NASA’s Glenn Research Center, said today in a news release. “The flight demonstrations are risk reduction activities that will develop multiple capabilities and will provide operational concepts, performance validation and acquisition models needed to plan the future acquisition of commercial services for each class of NASA missions.”

SpaceX’s satellites are manufactured at the company’s facilities in Redmond, Wash., not far from the complex where Amazon’s Project Kuiper is developing its broadband satellites.

In addition to SpaceX and Project Kuiper, the contractors include U.S.-based ventures representing Inmarsat, SES, Telesat and Viasat. Each venture will be required to complete technology development and in-space demonstrations by 2025 to prove that its system can deliver robust, reliable and cost-effective services — including the ability for new high-rate and high-capacity two-way links.

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Radio astronomy director cuts through the static

There are plenty of astronomers who worry that the thousands of satellites that are being launched into low Earth orbit for global broadband internet access will cast a pall over their scientific observations. But Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, says the future looks bright.

And he means that in a good way.

It’s not just that he’s confident astronomers will deal with the challenges posed by potential interference from all those satellites — including the latest batch of 47 Starlink satellites, which were built at SpaceX’s factory in Redmond, Wash., and sent into orbit today from Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

“We will find a solution,” Beasley told GeekWire. “We’re not going to be the ones that cause all of the concerns here for SpaceX. It could be that our optical [astronomy] friends will do that, but that’s OK.”

Beasley, an Australia native who’s headed the National Science Foundation’s leading center for radio astronomy for the past decade, is also optimistic about the prospects for the NRAO’s next giant leap: the Next Generation Very Large Array.

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Falling Starlink satellites highlight space traffic concerns

SpaceX says that most of the satellites it launched last week for its Starlink broadband internet constellation are doomed to fall from orbit due to a solar storm.

Based on the company’s analysis, as many as 40 of the 49 satellites — which were built at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash. — will plunge through the atmosphere and burn up. Some have already made the plunge.

“Ah, how I love the smell of burning satellites in the morning,” Marco Langbroek, a satellite consultant at Leiden University in the Netherlands, joked in a tweet.

In an update, SpaceX stressed that the falling satellites “pose zero collision risk with other satellites and by design demise upon atmospheric re-entry — meaning no orbital debris is created and no satellite parts hit the ground.”

Nevertheless, the satellite failures draw attention to the challenges raised by the rise of satellite mega-constellations, even as the Federal Communications Commission considers SpaceX’s proposal to launch nearly 30,000 second-generation Starlink satellites into new orbital configurations.

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Astronomers set up center to save the sky from satellites

The International Astronomical Union is heading up the creation of a new center to deal with the complications created by broadband satellite constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper.

The IAU Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky From Satellite Constellation Interference will be co-hosted at the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab in Arizona and the SKA Observatory’s offices at Jodrell Bank in Britain.

“The new center is an important step towards ensuring that technological advances do not inadvertently impede our study and enjoyment of the sky,” IAU President Debra Elmegreen said today in a news release.

Former IAU General Secretary Piero Benvenuti, the center’s director, said the memorandum of understanding creating the center was signed just a day earlier, and a website for the project hasn’t yet been established.

But the University of Washington’s Institute for Data Intensive Research in Astrophysics and Cosmology, or DIRAC, is already getting a head start on one of the center’s missions — cataloging astronomical images with satellite streaks so they can be made available for analysis.

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Amazon fires back at SpaceX in satellite war of words

Amazon laid out out a laundry list of SpaceX’s regulatory tussles today in a letter sent to the Federal Communications Commission, marking the latest chapter in a bare-knuckles battle over broadband satellite constellations.

The letter — written by C. Andrew Keisner, lead counsel for Amazon’s multibillion-dollar Project Kuiper satellite project — argues that SpaceX has run roughshod over regulatory requirements, and that SpaceX lambastes anyone who seeks to call the company to account.

“Whether it is launching satellites with unlicensed antennas, launching rockets without approval, building an unapproved launch tower, or reopening a factory in violation of a shelter-in-place order, the conduct of SpaceX and other Musk-led companies makes their view plain: rules are for other people, and those who insist upon or even simply request compliance are deserving of derision and ad hominem attacks,” Keisner wrote.

This comes in response to SpaceX’s complaint last week that Amazon is “more than willing to use regulatory and legal processes to create obstacles designed to delay” its competitors.

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Elon Musk goads Jeff Bezos as space spat escalates

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has fired a fresh volley of tart tweets at Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and the Blue Origin space venture, in the midst of a regulatory tussle over SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation and Amazon’s competing Project Kuiper concept.

And this time, space lasers are involved.

The spark that lit Musk’s latest flame war came after SpaceX sought the Federal Communications Commission’s approval to amend plans for sending up tens of thousands of Starlink satellites to provide global broadband service. The amendment would let SpaceX use its Starship mega-rocket, currently under development, to put its Gen2 satellites into an assortment of orbits.

In response, Amazon urged the FCC to turn back SpaceX’s request, saying that the amendment proposes “two mutually exclusive configurations” for the Starlink constellation and leaves too many details unsettled. And in response to thatSpaceX told the FCC that Amazon’s filing was “only the latest in its continuing efforts to slow down competition.”

SpaceX also complained that Amazon was neglecting to resolve the FCC’s concerns about Project Kuiper. The FCC gave conditional approval to Amazon’s plans more than a year ago — provided that the Kuiper satellites didn’t interfere with previously approved satellite systems, including Starlink. SpaceX noted that Amazon hasn’t yet filed documents showing how it planned to avoid interference and ensure safe satellite operations.

More than 1,700 first-generation Starlink satellites have already been launched in accordance with previous FCC approvals, and the internet service is currently in expanded beta testing.

The Starlink spat comes amid the backdrop of legal protests that Bezos’ other big brainchild, Blue Origin, has filed against NASA for awarding a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract to SpaceX. Because of Blue Origin’s lawsuit, NASA and SpaceX have suspended work to adapt Starship as the landing system for a crewed mission to the moon, which is currently set for as early as 2024. (That date seems increasingly unlikely, however, and not just because of the lawsuit.)

In today’s tweets, Musk touched on the FCC filings as well as the lunar lander dispute, referring to Bezos without mentioning him by name.

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FCC clears SpaceX to shift Starlink satellite orbits

The Federal Communications Commission has given the go-ahead for SpaceX to modify the planned orbits for future satellites in its Starlink broadband internet constellation — a move that SpaceX says will result in improved, safer operations but has faced resistance from Amazon’s Project Kuiper and other rivals.

After the FCC issued its 57-page order, Amazon said its concerns were adequately addressed by the conditions that the commission placed on its approval.

The FCC authorized SpaceX to lower the primary operational altitude for 2,814 of its satellites from an originally specified range of between 1,100 to 1,200 kilometers (684 to 746 miles) to a range between 540 and 570 kilometers (336 to 354 miles). That’s in addition to 1,584 satellites previously cleared for the lower set of orbits.

SpaceX already has more than 1,300 satellites in low Earth orbit, and it’s in the process of expanding its beta testing program for Starlink’s satellite internet service. Sixty more satellites are due to be launched as early as Wednesday.

Eventually, SpaceX aims to offer global broadband access through a network that makes use of thousands more satellites. Those satellites are built at SpaceX’s growing facility in Redmond, Wash.

SpaceX says that the revised orbits should improve response times for the network — and that the lower orbits should make it easier to dispose of satellites once they’ve outlived their usefulness, by commanding them to take a fiery plunge through the atmosphere.

However, the newly authorized orbits come close to the 590- to 630-kilometer (367- to 391-mile) orbits that have been targeted for future satellites in Amazon’s Project Kuiper constellation, which also aims to provide global broadband internet access.

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SpaceX expands its footprint in the Seattle area

SpaceX is leasing a 124,907-square-foot building complex that’s under construction in Redmond Ridge Business Park, east of Seattle, according to the latest industrial real estate market report from Kidder Mathews. Kidder Mathews, which listed the property for lease, says construction is slated for completion this fall.

The construction site, which takes in the business park’s Buildings 4 and 5 and offers up to 300 extra parking places nearby, is just a block away from SpaceX’s existing facilities at Redmond Ridge. Those facilities serve as the headquarters for SpaceX’s Starlink satellite development and manufacturing operation.

Eventually, SpaceX aims to provide global broadband internet access via a network of thousands of Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit. More than 1,400 satellites already have been launched — including 60 that were sent into orbit today — and Starlink has been gradually expanding its “Better Than Nothing” beta offering.

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Pacific Northwest meteor mystery gets solved quickly

Was it a meteor? A broken-up satellite? Maybe a UFO? Leave it to an astronomer to identify what caused the light show that was visible over a wide stretch of the Pacific Northwest around 9 p.m. PT tonight.

Jonathan McDowell, an expert satellite-tracker at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, quickly figured out that the meteoric display was actually the breakup of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket stage, left over from a launch that took place three weeks ago.

“The Falcon 9 second stage from the Mar 4 Starlink launch failed to make a deorbit burn and is now re-entering after 22 days in orbit,” McDowell tweeted.

It’s fitting that the re-entry of a rocket stage from a Starlink satellite launch provided a moment of marvelment from Seattle to Portland and beyond. After all, those satellites are manufactured at SpaceX’s facility in Redmond, Wash., and it’s conceivable that members of the Starlink team caught the show.