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Starlink (satellite constellation) impact on CCD photometry

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Starlink (satellite constellation) impact on CCD photometry

In the future, probably after my retirement, I would like to contribute to citizen science with some CCD photometry work.
However I believe that my plans could change, I found this worrying news:

So my question for the experts is: what impact will such a vast satellite constellation have on amateur CCD photometry?
and also in general on ground-based astronomy and even on associations like AAVSO?




Eric Dose
Eric Dose's picture
I'm doubling down on photometry

Of course, if their satellite system even happens, the effect on photometry will not be welcome. But some estimates of effect should be possible. We know their projected count, altitude, and thus velocity, so we should be able to compute Poisson probabilities of a satellite's sweeping any given image. Rule of thumb, low-orbit satellites like the ISS sweep about a degree of sky a second at zenith. But first, does anyone know how big these satellites are (to estimate their magnitude at ground)?

Some thoughts:

  • Radio astronomy would be affected more than optical. After all, these satellites are planned to be powerful, high-frequency radio transmitters all pointed at the ground 24/7. Goodbye VLA.
  • Despite their assurances (a euphemism), they will not be able to much reduce the satellites' albedo, due to solar heating and all that.
  • Last night I took 328 photometric images, and only 5 had clearly visible tracks of satellites; zero images were affected photometrically, even with all the satellites up there already. And I just installed a new mount, so I guess that means I've cast my vote to continue photometry for several years.
Ccolvin968's picture
Really resurrecting an old

Really resurrecting an old thread here...

When it comes to photometry you're likely going to be okay. When their orbits are raised and they are in their final orbit locations the impact theoretically on visual astronomy will be negligible. Consider how much stuff is up there already that's been launched since the 60's.

Radio astronomy is another animal, but I don't know a whole lot about what freqs are used for radio astronomy and how close they are to what would be used for internet.

I know that meteorologists are concerned about it though...

About the magnitude here they

About the magnitude here they speak from 4th to 7th:

About the number, the satellites of SpaceX alone could be from 12000 to 42000, but other companies such as Boeing are planning a similar constellation, so the number could rise.

A newbie question:

what happens if in a frame the track of a satellite covers the variable or a comparison star? do you have to break the photometric sequence in two (before and after this frame, as at the meridian passage with a german equatorial mount) or do you just have to eliminate the frame from the sequence?


In the meantime I have searched better on the net, and apart from many generic press articles I think the most interesting sources are two articles from these authoritative sites, the first one an IAU statement regarding the problems of optical astronomy:

and concerns about Kessler syndrome:

Regarding radio astronomy, I listened in a postcast of a broadcast on the Italian public radio to an interview with the head of the Radio Astronomical Station of Medicine (Bologna, Italy), who explained that although the satellites will transmit in a highly directive way, with the beamforming technique, however, the problem of secondary lobes remains sufficient to blind radio telescopes.

Maybe a way out could come from the law:

Bikeman's picture
If and when the total number

If and when the total number of sats in the Starlink and competitors' constellation reaches 40k and more, the math gets kind of easy: take any square degree of the sky at any given time and you are more likely than not to have one of the sats in your field, right?

Now, whether the sat is illuminated at that time is another question. They will be in relatively low orbits to achieve low latency in communication, which makes them bright when illuminated but less likely to be illuminated as they will spend more time in Earth's shadow.

Better still, photometry is only affected if the trail passed thru any of the target star or comparison/check stars vicinity. Typically these areas of the field that are actually used for photometry are a super-tiny fraction of the field.

I don't think anyone should get discouraged from engaging in amateur variable star photometry. At worst, we'll need to insert a better quality assurance step into our workflows to reject a small fraction of contaminated images, with a lot of potential for automation.


I would like to believe that there might also be a bright side to it for astronomers in rural areas or people connecting to remote telescopes .... however, I'm afraid, reading initial reports, that the main business case for these networks is high frequency stock market trading and military applications (as light travels actually considerably slower thru fiber cables compared to in vacuum, taking what appears to be a detour via satellites is actually speeding up communication over long distances on Earth).


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