SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told scientists Monday that he’d like to collaborate with astronomers on seeing deeper into space, and perhaps even getting clearer pictures of exoplanets that might host life.
“I’m very excited about a future of space-based telescopes that could be very large,” Musk told a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine via a Zoom videoconference.
The committee meeting was a part of a decadal survey in which NASA, other government agencies and scientists try to set priorities for astronomical and astrophysics research. Musk was invited to address concerns about interference from large satellite constellations like Starlink.
The billionaire entrepreneur said that “VisorSat” satellites equipped with a sunshade to block reflections from the sun are a potential fix. The glint makes the satellites bright enough to see from Earth and has marred some astronomical observations over the past year. Musk said the next launch of Starlink satellites should be equipped with the dimming devices.
“We will take further steps as needed,” Musk assured the audience of scientists, adding that the fix is “quite simple” and “we’ll feel a bit silly in hindsight.”
Are SpaceX Starlink satellites ruining the night sky?
Astronomers began noticing the satellites immediately after their first launch last year. The constellation has since grown to over 400 individual satellites. SpaceX is permitted by the FCC to launch over 12,000 satellites and has filed paperwork with international agencies to eventually have a mega constellation 40,000 strong.
On the call, Musk confirmed that he sees 20,000 to 30,000 satellites as the ideal size to blanket the planet in low-latency broadband internet access.
In addition to his reassurances about reducing the satellites’ impact on astronomy, Musk went on to mention the idea of collaborating on a “planet-imaging observatory” in orbit. Such telescopes orbit much higher than Starlink satellites in low-Earth orbit and would be at no risk of interference from any mega constellations.
Musk concluded the call by returning to the idea, saying that he hopes to have his next-generation Starship making regular flights within a couple of years.
“It allows more space telescopes to be transported to orbit at a fraction of the cost,” he said.
He joked that he was motivated by his desire to find out whether our universe is really just a computer simulation.
“If we can at least try to image some planets… they’ll have to make the rendering better.”
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