More than 2.7% of Hubble images were corrupted due to passing satellites

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(ORDO NEWS) — An international team of astronomers found that more than 2.7% of Hubble’s long-exposure images were corrupted by one or more other satellites passing through the orbiting telescope’s field of view at the same time.

“Our observations show that between 2002 and 2021, over 2.7% of long-exposure images taken with Hubble cameras were corrupted by the passage of satellites through the telescope’s field of view.

We expect that this proportion will become even more higher in the coming years due to the rapid growth in the number of probes in Earth‘s orbit,” the researchers wrote.

This conclusion was reached by a group of astronomers led by Mark McCaughrin, the European Space Agency‘s (ESA) senior adviser for space science and exploration.

Scientists wondered if Hubble would be vulnerable to the light pollution of the sky, which is associated with the launch of a large number of satellites, including fleets of communication probes, in the past few years.

The researchers’ fears were related to the fact that Hubble rotates at a relatively small distance from the Earth’s surface, about 540 km, as a result of which a large number of other orbital probes should, in theory, often fall into its field of view and interfere with the observations in which images are prepared with a long exposure.

Guided by this idea, McCaughrin and his colleagues collected all the photographs of this kind that Hubble received between 2002 and 2021, and processed them using a special neural network capable of finding traces of the movement of satellites in satellite images.

Her calculations showed that more than 2.7% of the photographs collected by Hubble during this period were corrupted by other satellites flying through the field of view of the observatory.

Of particular concern to scientists was the fact that the annual share of corrupted images almost doubled between 2009 and 2021, which was equally characteristic of the ACS and WFC3 cameras, two of Hubble’s main instruments.

For this reason, scientists expect that in the coming years the proportion of corrupted images may increase two or more times, which will have an extremely negative impact on the quality of observations.

This suggests that the light pollution of the sky associated with satellites negatively affects not only ground-based, but also orbiting telescopes, the astronomers summed up.

Clear sky

After the announcement of SpaceX‘s plans to launch a flotilla of Starlink communications probes in January 2015, the scientific community became seriously concerned about how these devices could affect astronomical observations.

After the launch of the first batches of probes, scientists discovered that Starlink vehicles regularly came into the view of a large number of ground-based observatories and generated bright streaks in the images, often making these photographs unsuitable for scientific use.

A wide public discussion of this problem led to the fact that in February last year the International Astronomical Union created a specialized Center for protecting the sky from satellite fleets.

Within its framework, scientists coordinate efforts to combat the consequences of launching such devices for optical and radio wave observations.


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