Amid the growing fleet of satellites being launched into space, astronomers are worried about the light pollution they cause. Scientists say the satellites are ruining night sky observations and damaging the images they capture.
Perhaps the biggest culprit of satellite-aided light pollution is Elon Musk‘s Space X. The company is responsible for launching more than 3,000 of the 5,000 active satellites orbiting Earth, reported The Guardian.
What’s more, it has also received permission to launch 12,000 Starlink satellites and is aiming to add 30,000 more second-generation satellites blanketing the planet.
These satellites are causing an unintended impact on astronomy. The light from these satellites is photo-bombing pictures taken by astronomers, effectively, ruining them. Moreover, low-orbit satellites like Starlink would lead to radio interference with sensitive astronomical instruments.
In 2020 when Space X launched hundreds of satellites, Alice Gorman, a space archaeologist at Australia’s Flinders University, had forewarned of the “radical change.”
“In a couple of generations there will be no one left alive who remembers the night sky before these satellites,” Gorman said at the time.
Karlie Noon, an astronomer at the Australian National University, is working on a paper on light pollution and skyglow (artificial brightness of the night sky).
“We’re taking pictures of the sky, and when we do that, we can capture the satellites going through our field of view. When that happens, we essentially have to delete that image and hope we have some time period or other channel to capture that information,” Noon explained.
The astronomer said light pollution is threatening observations that are dependent on very expensive equipment.
“There’s a threshold of light pollution that astronomical observations can deal with at a given time and that’s about 10% – a 10% increased light or skyglow. Once we exceed that point of skyglow it becomes pretty much impossible to do scientific observations of the sky,” Noon added. “This is the threshold [that] billion-dollar instruments, observatories are built on.”
Jonathan McDowell, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, called them an “existential threat to ground-based astronomy.”
“A few thousand satellites is a nuisance, but hundreds of thousands is an existential threat to ground-based astronomy,” the astronomer explained.
Whatever may be the impact, it is undeniable that these mega-constellations help bring the world closer through cheap telecommunications.
“Nations with large open spaces and strong cultural connections to the sky, such as Australia and Canada, are placed in a paradoxical position, with mega-constellations providing broad-based benefits to marginalized and remote communities through increased access to services at the cost of interference with science and culture,” researchers from Flinders University wrote in their paper, highlighting the dilemma the world is facing.
It seems Australian astronomer Fred Watson has read the writing on the wall. “Astronomy will not be the same – but it’ll still be fun,” he said.