SpaceX is already the world’s largest single satellite operator with more than 400 of its Starlink internet nodes zipping around the Earth, but that’s only the start. The company hopes to have a fleet of thousands of satellites in just a few years, and that has astronomers worried. We’ve already seen these clouds of manmade material interfere with observations, and the problem will only get worse. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has promised to mitigate the astronomical interference caused by the Starlink Constellation, and now we’ve got more information about the company’s “VisorSat” solution.
Satellite internet already exists, but bandwidth and latency are inferior to what you can get with any modern terrestrial solution. This has made satellite internet a last resort for those with no other connectivity options. Key to SpaceX’s approach is the massive size of its fleet, which will provide higher bandwidth to users on the ground. Some of the Starlink constellation will also orbit at very low altitudes to cut down on latency. All this means the probes are more likely to show up in astronomical observations, some of which have to remain focused on the same patch of sky for hours at a time. In one incident from early 2020, a team from the CTIO observatory in Chile lost 15-20 percent of the data from an image of the Magellanic Clouds.
The solution, apparently, is a system SpaceX has dubbed VisorSat. Once in orbit, the satellites would deploy small fins to block sunlight from hitting the reflective antennas and bouncing down to Earth. Musk says this should make the probes invisible to the naked eye and minimize the impact on astronomy. The company will also change the way the satellites orient themselves while moving into higher orbits after launch, which is when they are most visible.
Previously, SpaceX experimented with treating materials to make them less reflective, and that showed promise in early testing. However, Musk says he believes VisorSat will be more effective. SpaceX intends to test VisorSat on the next Starlink launch, which could happen in the next few weeks. SpaceX has been launching batches of 60 satellites about once per month this year.
If VisorSat works as intended, all future Starlink satellites will include the technology. SpaceX designed the satellites to be cheap with an expected lifespan of three or four years. That means the company can replace the current 400-strong fleet with less reflective satellites little by little as they fail and deorbit.