SKA Statement on satellite constellations

by Cassandra Cavallaro on 10 June 2019
The SKA Organisation has followed closely the recent developments towards creating constellations of satellites that aim to offer wireless broadband access in remote areas.
image of the SKA

Innovation and societal impact are at the heart of our mission to deliver the world’s largest radio telescope, and indeed we feel some community pride that Wi-Fi itself originated as a globally-significant spin out from fundamental radio astronomy research.

Radio astronomers have been engaged for decades in the work of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) – a United Nations Agency – to regulate the international use of the radio frequency spectrum. Their efforts ensured a limited number of narrow bands of the spectrum received protection in the 1960s to allow radio astronomy to develop and conduct essential and unique research.

Over the years however, there has been growing pressure on the spectrum due to the arrival of novel technologies. However, at the same time radio astronomy has developed extensively beyond those bands to remain at the forefront of scientific breakthroughs. In the case of the SKA, our ability to eventually continuously observe the sky across a large part of the radio spectrum promises a wealth of discoveries in an extremely broad range of science disciplines.

Whilst there is legislation in place at the two SKA sites in Australia and South Africa to protect the telescopes from ground-based radio interference at those frequencies, the use of air and spaceborne radio communications is regulated on a collaborative international basis, often coordinated through the ITU.

As a global project, we firmly believe in the power of collaboration. As a sector member of ITU, we are engaging directly with companies such as SpaceX to explore mitigation options and initiatives that could be applied  to ensure that the large-scale investments in the SKA and other radio telescopes, their discovery potential and the likely spin-outs coming out of their development are safeguarded while these new developments in telecommunications, with their obvious broader societal benefits, flourish.

Recent public statements from SpaceX officials are reassuring in this respect and we remain optimistic that the development of such satellite constellations can be compatible with radio astronomy, preserving our ability as a society to continue advancing our knowledge about our universe.

We look forward to further cooperation to evolve a radio astronomy friendly environment.

Prof. Philip Diamond
SKA Director-General