SpaceX Set to Launch Starlink Satellites With Special Visors to Stop Their Light From Ruining Astronomy

SpaceX will launch its latest batch of internet satellites as part of the Starlink mega-constellation project this week. But unlike previous launches, the spacecraft will feature a special "visor" that the company is testing in an attempt to lower the brightness of the satellites.

According to the company's founder Elon Musk, the experimental visor should help to reduce the brightness of the satellites, going some way to address the concerns of astronomers who say the spacecraft could harm astronomical observations.

The latest launch of 60 satellites was scheduled for May 17, however, it has been postponed until Tuesday—the company are targeting 3:10 a.m. ET—due to the development of a tropical depression off the U.S. southeastern coast.

It is not clear how many of the 60 satellites will feature the so-called "VisorSat" system, but in future launches, all the spacecraft will be equipped with it, according to Musk.

"Our objectives, generally, are to make the satellites invisible to the naked eye, and to minimize the impact on astronomy, especially so that we do not saturate observatory detectors and inhibit discoveries," Musk told a committee of scientists on April 27, Space News reported.

The VisorSat is designed to keep the antennae of the satellites in the shade, thereby preventing sunlight from reflecting off them. The visor—made up of several panels—will deploy almost like an umbrella.

"We have a radio-transparent foam that will deploy nearly upon the satellite being released, and it blocks the sun from reaching the antennas," Musk said. "They're sun visors, essentially: they flip out and block the sun and prevent reflections."

The company has also said that it wants to try adjusting the orientation of the satellites while they raise their orbits after launch in further efforts to reduce the amount of light reflecting back to Earth.

"Early indications are this will have a significant effect on the brightness during orbit raise," Musk said. "The satellites will be significantly less visible from the ground."

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Elon Musk, founder and chief engineer of SpaceX speaks at the 2020 Satellite Conference and Exhibition March 9, 2020 in Washington, D.C. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Previously the company has launched some Starlink satellites that have been covered in experimental darkening treatments on the most reflective surfaces, such as the antennae. While this method has shown some promise, Musk said that providing the satellites with shade was a better approach.

The Starlink project involves launching thousands of communications satellites into orbit in order to provide high-speed internet coverage across the planet, even in regions where people have traditionally lacked access, or where connectivity has been poor.

To date, more than 420 Starlink satellites have been launched into orbit, but the company has received regulatory approval to deploy as many as 12,000 spacecraft.

However, the project has been criticized by some astronomers who say that the satellites could interfere with observations of the sky, particularly those conducted with telescopes that have wide fields of view such as the under-construction Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile. In fact, the satellites have already been appearing as white streaks in some astronomical images that have been taken in the past several months.