When OneWeb filed for bankruptcy protection in March, astronomers breathed a sigh of relief. The company planned to launch thousands of internet-providing satellites into low-Earth orbit, where their reflections could disrupt the observations of ground-based telescopes. But now, the company has risen from the grave with the announcement today that the U.K. government and the Indian cellphone operator Bharti Global have successfully bid to rescue OneWeb with a $1 billion investment.
The revived company now plans an even larger constellation of up to 42,000 satellites, at an altitude of 1200 kilometers—the worst possible outcome for astronomers. At that altitude, satellites will leave bright trails across telescope images all through the night, effectively ruining the observations of survey telescopes such as the 8-meter Vera C. Rubin Observatory, under construction in Chile. “It’s the stuff at 1000 kilometers that is the real killer for astronomy,” says Mark McCaughrean of the European Space Agency, speaking at a briefing organized by the European Astronomical Society (EAS). “Engagement [with astronomers] has to happen and it has to happen now.”
Astronomers first became concerned about such “megaconstellations” last year, when the launch company SpaceX lofted the first batch of its Starlink satellites. The aim of the project is to provide internet access in areas hard to reach with fiber-optic cables. The satellites, launched 60 at a time in a single rocket, proved to be highly visible in the sky, to the alarm of astronomers. The company has now launched 540 Starlink satellites—part of an initial goal of 1584—and aims to provide a service in the United States and Canada before the end of the year.