There are plenty of astronomers who worry that the thousands of satellites that are being launched into low Earth orbit for global broadband internet access will cast a pall over their scientific observations. But Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, says the future looks bright.
And he means that in a good way.
It’s not just that he’s confident astronomers will deal with the challenges posed by potential interference from all those satellites — including the latest batch of 47 Starlink satellites, which were built at SpaceX’s factory in Redmond, Wash., and sent into orbit today from Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
“We will find a solution,” Beasley told GeekWire. “We’re not going to be the ones that cause all of the concerns here for SpaceX. It could be that our optical [astronomy] friends will do that, but that’s OK.”
Beasley, an Australia native who’s headed the National Science Foundation’s leading center for radio astronomy for the past decade, is also optimistic about the prospects for the NRAO’s next giant leap: the Next Generation Very Large Array.
The ngVLA would upgrade an array of radio telescopes stretching from Hawaii to New Hampshire and the U.S. Virgin Islands. To cite just one example, the array’s outpost in Brewster, Wash., would grow from a single antenna to three antennas.
“Brewster is one of our important long-baseline sites, and we want significantly more collecting area on those scales,” Beasley said. (Brewster also happens to be the site of one of SpaceX’s satellite ground stations.)
If the ngVLA wins the final go-ahead from the NSF and funding from Congress, the 263-dish system could improve the sensitivity and resolution of radio observations by more than an order of magnitude, bringing black holes, pulsars and other exotic cosmic phenomena into sharper focus.
Beasley was particularly pleased to see how highly the ngVLA was rated in the National Academy of Sciences’ latest Astronomy and Astrophysics Decadal Survey, which sets the agenda in astronomy for the coming decade.
“There are a couple of great instrument concepts recommended by the survey,” he said. “There’s the US ELT [U.S. Extremely Large Telescope] program, and there’s us, and there’s CMB-S4, the microwave background experiment down in Chile and Antarctica. … We’re all doing the same thing at the moment, which is trying to finish the design development activities, attract the attention of partners, and just sort of try to get toward construction.”
If Beasley and his teammates stick to their hoped-for schedule, construction of the ngVLA could begin by 2026, with early scientific observations starting in 2029 and full scientific operations by 2035.
Between now and then, astronomers who work in an assortment of wavelengths will have to address the issues raised by the thousands of satellites that are due to go into low Earth orbit in the coming years. By 2029, more than 5,000 satellites could be above the horizon at any given time, according to NSF’s NOIRLab.
Last month, astronomers from NOIRLab and other research institutions joined the International Astronomical Union in a campaign to minimize satellite interference with scientific observations and the simpler pleasures of clear, dark skies.
Beasley says he’s concerned about the scientific challenges, but he’s quick to note that satellite mega-constellations like Starlink — and Amazon’s Project Kuiper, which is still in the planning stage — will bring significant social benefits as well.
The potential benefits of satellite broadband came into the spotlight just this week, when SpaceX shipped Starlink terminals to Ukraine with the aim of keeping embattled residents stay connected during the Russian invasion.
The mega-constellation balancing act was one of the themes in our conversation with Beasley, which took place before the invasion. Here are samplings from the Q&A, edited for length and clarity.
GeekWire: What kind of support is radio astronomy getting from Congress?
Beasley: “A lot of what NSF brings forward is broadly perceived to be a great thing. I think the broader question about science funding is a tricky one. There are areas of physical research — particle physics and radio astronomy — where the U.S. has been a world leader for decades and decades. And there are problems emerging, right? There seems to be difficulty in moving on to the next round of facilities, or maintaining that world leadership.
“So that’s something that certainly part of the discussion we have with NSF. It’s that ‘you guys have run the world’s best radio facilities for decades now, and you’re just gonna let the Europeans swim past you, or the Chinese swim past you?’ People in Congress get it, and the general public gets it, but the science agencies themselves struggle with it.”
Q: Do you deal with the question of what’ll happen to the Arecibo Observatory in the wake of its collapse?
A: “I’m not personally connected to that, although we have submitted some proposals. That’s a difficult situation. The collapse happened halfway through the Decadal Survey. It’s very hard to get something significant built and get a lot of funding out of Congress if you’re not considered and fully vetted through the Decadal Survey. So if your telescope falls over while the survey is being written, you’ve got a problem.
“I know the Arecibo people very well. As I said, we’ve written some joint proposals to the NSF about what the next thing down there might be. If you look at the America COMPETES Act, there’s some nice language in there saying that NSF should consider what the next thing at Arecibo should be, and the Arecibo people themselves have brought forward this NGAT [Next Generation Arecibo Telescope] concept. I don’t know that that’s what I would do, but OK.”
Q: On the mega-constellation front, you must be consulting with Amazon and OneWeb as well as with SpaceX. How big of a problem is this going to be?
A: “We work pretty closely with SpaceX. I mean, SpaceX is way out in front, right? We have a lot of discussions underway with OneWeb. They’re a couple of miles further back on the trail. The others have not really appeared yet.
“I have to say, I don’t know that I’d be investing in this business. It’s so expensive to get the infrastructure up there. So how many of these can we actually support? I think this is one of those situations where whoever gets there first wins at some level, because they generate the need, and then they attract the customers.
“How can anyone support 30,000 satellites in orbit? I don’t really believe that’s fiscally possible. There’ll be one or two mega-constellations — and maybe the Chinese will do their own because it’s largely state-supported. So it’s not going to be zero, but I’d genuinely be surprised if there’s a hundred thousand satellites offering you mildly shitty internet 10 years from now, because who’s going to pay for that?
“We live in a special time where society can give us money to do pure research and learn about the universe. But if we’re being perfectly honest, we’re also given this responsibility to develop cool stuff that eventually ends up in your cellphone, and educate people and march forward. We get paid to pose and solve difficult problems, and these constellations are just problems that need to be fixed.
“The thing I find a little frustrating is, it’s easy when you’ve got amazing internet access to try placing limits on these companies and decide the future of all this. But there’s, what, three-quarters of the world who struggle to get access to this resource. Providing them with this is, I think, at least as important as a dark night sky, in some sense. So we’ve got to balance. And that’s the thing that I have to say I sometimes find missing in the discussion.
“Right now, we’re in a ‘Holy shit, what can we possibly do’ mode. But as I feel we have done, the optical community just needs to start solving problems and working more with the companies, and we’ll get around it.”