(ORDO NEWS) — Due to the rapid development of commercial astronautics, more and more satellites appear in orbit around our planet. Most of them are in low Earth orbit, which is becoming increasingly crowded.
In this regard, some fear a catastrophic increase in the amount of space debris, and astronomers are increasingly expressing dissatisfaction with the large number of satellite tracks in the sky.
Currently, the biggest player is SpaceX‘s Starlink project, which has more than 1,700 satellites in low Earth orbit. They have become infamous for creating bright streaks in astronomical images. But Starlink will soon be followed by other projects such as OneWeb and Amazon’s Kuiper project.
The goal of all these projects is to provide an easily accessible Internet around the world, which is a noble goal. But the visibility of these satellites will also pose serious problems for critical astronomy. And although the impact of these satellites on astronomy is not serious yet, it will soon be, as a recent study shows.
A study published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters examines the number of Starlink trails in images taken by the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF) at the Palomar Observatory.
They found that from November 2019 to September 2021, more than 5,300 bands were seen on ZFT images. Most of the bands have been seen in twilight images taken at dusk or dawn.
In 2019, only half a percent of twilight images had stripes, but now they are visible in about one in five twilight images. This is a concern, as twilight images are the most important for finding near-Earth asteroids.
The potential meteor strikes that pose the greatest threat to us are the ones that are the hardest to detect, as they follow a trajectory close to the Sun’s position in the sky.
The authors note that this number of bands is not large enough to significantly affect the search for potential asteroid collisions. But when that number rises to 10,000 or 15,000, astronomers will start to miss some asteroids. Given current trends, this number will be reached within a year or so.
There are ways to reduce the effect of these bands. Painting satellites and adding reflective panels can reduce their brightness, especially in the infrared wavelengths, which is important for detecting asteroids near Earth.
But the study notes that the mitigation strategy currently proposed by Starlink will not be sufficient to avoid impacting astronomy.
It is clear that we will soon have to make difficult choices regarding satellite internet. While it can expand communication between people even in the world’s most impoverished and remote regions, it can also destroy our ability to watch the skies and better understand the universe we call home.
If we don’t set our priorities and targets soon, SpaceX, Amazon, and other mega-companies will make the decision for us.
Contact us: [email protected]