Elon Musk's Starlink May Prevent Astronomers From Detecting Asteroids On Collision Course For Earth

Aadhya Khatri - Feb 02, 2021


Elon Musk's Starlink May Prevent Astronomers From Detecting Asteroids On Collision Course For Earth

The sheer number of Starlink satellites on low-Earth orbit is concerning astronomers as they make it almost impossible to get a clear view of the sky

The sheer number of satellites on low-Earth orbit is concerning astronomers as they make it almost impossible to get a clear view of the sky.

The true scope of the threat of constellations has yet to be fully understood. According to a recent report of the American Astronomical Society, the satellites will change astronomical observation for near-infrared and optical investigations.

Starlink 2
The true scope of the threat of constellations has yet to be fully understood

The first batch of Starlink satellites, ever since their launch in 2019, has been clearly visible in the night sky. In the next few years, the entire constellation is expected to amass up to 42,000 satellites.

Starlink satellites
In the next few years, the entire constellation is expected to amass up to 42,000 satellites

And Elon Musk’s Starlink isn’t the only ambitious space Internet project out there. Last year, Amazon was approved to launch 3,236 satellites for its own Internet service and things will never be the same anymore.

As stated by Megan Donahue – a Michigan State University astronomer, while many marvel at the sight of a train of bright lights moving across the night sky, astronomers knew that these satellites would create long white streaks on the pictures taken by telescopes, blotting out the celestial objects astronomers were studying.

Starlink satellites night sky
While many marvel at the sight of a train of bright lights moving across the night sky, astronomers knew that these satellites would create long white streaks on the pictures taken by telescopes

While satellites appearing in photos are nothing strange, according to Jeff Hall Lowell Observatory director, most of them are too far away to pose a threat. But since the newer constellations are deployed in the low-Earth orbit, they are much brighter and can distort data collected by astronomers.

Jeff Hall Lowell Observatory director
While satellites appearing in photos are nothing strange, according to Jeff Hall Lowell Observatory director, most of them are too far away to pose a threat

To make matters worse, newer generations of telescopes are getting more sensitive and lights from Starlink satellites can cripple them. For example, the Pan-STARRS (short for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) in Hawaii has already reported damage in collected data. And if we don’t come up with a solution soon enough, this situation might lead to disasters like when an asteroid may collide with Earth, there is no way for us to see the threat.

Pan Starrs
The Pan-STARRS (short for Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System) in Hawaii has already reported damage in collected data

An upcoming astronomy project that might well be sabotaged by Starlink satellites is the Vera C. Rubin Observatory which was deployed to help astronomers detect near-infrared and faint signals. Simulations suggest that Starlink satellites’ light trails will damage around 30% of the Vera C. Rubin photos, delaying several discoveries for generations.

Starlink satellites
Simulations suggest that Starlink satellites’ light trails will damage around 30% of the Vera C. Rubin photos, delaying several discoveries for generations

As stated by Donahue, there are possible workarounds for this issue, for example, satellite operators can reduce the brightness of the constellations. Another solution is to come up with software that can give astronomers a heads-up about when satellites pass overhead.

For satellite operators, the most effective way to solve the problem is to stop launching more satellites but that is a big no.

Starlink has tried painting them black but the brightness is only reduced just a little bit. The company is testing sun shields in the hope to find a long-term solution. Hall has a different approach. He said we could turn the reflective surface of the satellites away from the ground.

Starlink 1
Starlink has tried painting them black but the brightness is only reduced just a little bit. The company is testing sun shields in the hope to find a long-term solution

One of the most troubling issues now for satellite operators is the altitude. Greg Wyler, founder of OneWeb said his company’s satellites, thanks to their orbit of 1,200 kilometers, have less chance of colliding whereas Starlink, which operates in low-Earth orbit, will have to have more satellites to blanket our planet’s surface.

greg wyler oneweb
Greg Wyler, founder of OneWeb said his company’s satellites, thanks to their orbit of 1,200 kilometers, have less chance of colliding whereas Starlink, which operates in low-Earth orbit, will have to have more satellites to blanket our planet’s surface

However, this isn’t a long-term solution either. According to the AAS report, the farther the satellites, the longer they will stay in the field of view. We are talking about as long as the entire night.

The good news here is, these companies are willing to cooperate to find the best solution possible. According to Hall, the AAS report has input from both Starlink and OneWeb. This is an opportunity astronomers need to take as there are no rules against launching these constellations.

>>> Early Adopters Of Starlink Reported 4K Streaming On YouTube With No Buffering

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