Why SpaceX Starlink is bad for Astronomy | Nobel Laureate Didier Queloz

2019 Physics Nobel laureate Prof. Didier Queloz (Cavendish Laboratory, University of Cambridge) talks about how astronomy is being affected and will be affected by the satellite business. This is part of a longer interview on the discovery of the first exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star filmed on 27/11/2019.

Production Highlights

    3 cameras interview
  • Location:
    Cambridge (UK)
  • Cameras:
    3 x Canon C200
  • Sound:
    SoundDevices MixPre 3 II, 2 x Sennheiser MKH-416, 2 x Sennheiser AVX ME
  • Monitor/Rec:
    Atomos Sumo 19''
  • Editing:
    Davinci Resolve, Premiere Pro, After Effects, Audition
  • Crew:
    Samuele Lilliu (Director), Oggi Tomic (General setup, B camera).

Mejd Alsari (MA). What do you think of the Starlink program?

Didier Queloz (DQ). (SpaceX) Starlink is one of the many. Starlink is not the only one. It's just a beginning. My big worry right now is space is the new frontier and almost everybody can send stuff in space and that's out of control. We have satellites in orbit, quite a lot, but now there is a threat to send not a couple of hundred satellite but having 10,000 20,000 50,000 satellites in Near Earth Orbit.

The impact for astronomy means practically that from the beginning to end of a night you see these satellites because they reflect the light from the Sun. People sending these satellite don't care. They never talk to astronomers. They never talk to the public. They are obsessed by the idea to have a kind of a network of satellites that provides Wi-Fi to the whole world. I like the idea of the Wi-Fi everywhere. I think it's a brilliant idea, but we should face it. They don't do that freely. They're going to sell it. It's business stuff. There are people marketing the sky right now. They make money with that and the consequence is that we're going lose the sky because it can keep going.

So there would be so many satellite over there. First they will be crushing each other. There's more and more risk of crash. When you add the crash there is more and more material around. But then they don't really care whether people are willing to trade the sky against the Wi-Fi.

I would really like to have a real discussion with these people at least they should talk to the astronomers. There is the International Astronomical Union that is responding for the astronomers and is trying to understand if they could minimize first the impact. There may be ways to do that.

Is the society ready to lose the sky? Is the sky something that should be free or is it a new market?

Then [the sky] will be filled with satellites in the future. I would love to see this debate now starting.

Starlink is just the beginning. Astronomers are very aware of that because they see it and we see it every day. It's easy to see. It's going to affect the science we're doing. I would love to have discussion, a global discussion about:

Do we want that?

An usually the answer we get when we start talking with some people that are behind this they use to say: “Oh anyway we don't care because we have to move away from the earth so we should give up on the on the earth and move to Mars”. They have no idea what it is moving out of the Earth. We are biological entities, which are not designed to move into space. I invite them to spend one year in the South Pole to get a little bit of an experience of what it looks like being in a spacecraft out of the Earth. Still that would be an easy experience because it's only -60°C and it's very easy to go there but just to try it to get a feeling of what it means.

I hope there will be something changing here because this is a real threat.