• March 14, 2023
Astronomers make diplomatic effort to safeguard the night sky

Astronomers make diplomatic effort to safeguard the night sky

Astronomers’ efforts for the United Nations to back guidelines to prevent satellites from affecting the telescope’s views have been caught up in bureaucratic, diplomatic processes. In a U.N. subcommittee meeting earlier this month in Vienna, The delegates didn’t unanimously support the formation of an expert committee to create guidelines to define norms for protecting our night skies. Astronomers can convince the United Nations to endorse these guidelines eventually. Still, they have to wait until they determine if backroom talks can place the issue on the agenda for the June meeting.

“An expert group remains at the table”, but the national delegations “will require an agreement,” says Andrew Williams, the external relations manager for the European Southern Observatory.

Astronomers have been pushing ways to safeguard the night sky since 2019 when the rocket company SpaceX began its first launch of Starlink satellites. It is a “mega constellation” of more than 3500 satellites, providing global internet access directly from space. Stargazers were shocked by how bright the lines of satellites were as sunlight reflections reflected off their glossy surfaces. While most telescopes can block the bright trails of satellites, studies revealed that the survey telescopes with large fields of view, like the soon-to-be-launched Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile, would have difficulties avoiding the streaks of disruption.

Radio astronomers are also worried. Radio observatories are located in remote areas, away from television transmitters and cell tower interference. However, they cannot be shielded from transmissions flying above them. Starlink’s frequency band is located near the radio astronomy band Astronomy, and any spillover could affect observations.
SpaceX has made steps to minimize the impact by coating the satellites’ surfaces with materials that reflect less light and change their direction.

Last month SpaceX and the U.S. National Science Foundation and SpaceX signed an official agreement to continue working on this issue in conjunction with SpaceX trying to lower their satellites’ brightness to seven magnitudes or less. This is close to what’s evident to the naked eye. SpaceX will also provide astronomers with orbital data so that observatories can stay clear of passing satellites as much as possible. It will work to minimize the impact on U.S. radio telescopes. However, once countries set international standards, There’s no way to know if the other satellite companies planning mega-constellations will behave similarly. For instance, the first huge BlueWalker 3 was launched in September 2022. It competes with the brightest stars in the sky.

In the direction led by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Astronomers have been lobbying for the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), the U.N. body with 102 national members. In the upcoming Annual meeting of the COPUOS’s science and technology subcommittee, IAU suggested that the subcommittee create an expert group — which could comprise industry and academic representatives to study the issue for three years before the presentation of guidelines. IAU also requests that the subcommittee keep this issue as an ongoing agenda item.

The subcommittee already did similar things in the past decade ago. It created a working committee on the sustainable nature of space activities, which developed guidelines to reduce the production of debris from space. (China has yet to implement these guidelines.) COPUOS adopted the policies, and later, versions of them have been included in national laws in over 45 nations, including most of the leading space-related countries.

The IAU proposal was well-received. Williams states that more than 30 nations’ delegations supported it. Many mentioned the need for clear skies for cultural reasons; others helped dark skies tourism. The delegate from The United States, home to numerous satellite operators, was pleased that the group of experts will include the industry. “There was a singular coming to be part of,” claims Theunis Kotze, the head of legal at the Square Kilometre Array Observatory.

However, IAU needed to have everything according to its way. According to reports, Russian delegates backed the need to safeguard the field of astronomy but argued that the market wasn’t to create a new expert group. She also suggested that the current working group could address the problem that is focusing on the long-term sustainable space industry. IAU and other backers of the idea opposed this because the group already has the full load of work and has a membership that excludes scientists and industrial experts. “We require solutions that are practical and acceptable to the people who control the satellites”, the IAU’s Piero Benvenuti states.

A few delegates expressed concerns over adding a new item to the subcommittee’s already-packed agenda. When representatives discussed how to simplify schedules to include another thing on the final day of the session, the IAU proposal was defeated by time. As a result of those issues, the proposal will not automatically get approval at the next COPUOS session in June. Instead, the delegations that have put it forward comprising Chile, Spain, and South Africa, which are all hosts of large research telescopes–alongside IAU and other supporters are given four months to reach trust and further refine their plan to explain what the need is for it to have an expert group of its own. “Overall, the outcome is extremely successful with a large amount of support from various nations,” Benvenuti says.

Kotze believes these “small disagreements” will be settled at that point. “The simple fact that the dark and peaceful skies were discussed at the U.N. is incredible,” Kotze said.

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