Deep Dives

SpaceX satellites are disrupting astronomical observations

July 8, 2023
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SpaceX's Starlink satellite constellation is causing issues for astronomers by emitting low-frequency radio waves, adding to the problems caused by the bright streaks they produce. These radio waves interfere with observations of deep space. Researchers expect similar issues to arise with other satellite constellations, creating more challenges for astronomy.

The Problem: SpaceX's Starlink satellites are causing frustration for astronomers.
  • Aside from appearing as bright streaks in astronomers' observations, a new study reveals they are also emitting low-frequency radio waves.
  • This unintended radiation comes from the satellites' onboard electronics and interferes with telescopes scanning the same frequency range.

  • Observations and Study: The study was conducted using the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) telescope in the Netherlands.
  • The LOFAR telescope detected this unintended radiation from 47 out of 68 observed Starlink satellites.
  • This frequency range includes a band specifically allocated to radio astronomy by the International Telecommunications Union.

  • Legal Considerations: Despite the issues, SpaceX is not violating any laws as there are no international regulations about this form of satellite radiation.
  • However, researchers suggest that such regulations might be necessary given the disruption caused by the Starlink satellites.
  • Their simulations show that the effects of this radiation will worsen as satellite constellations grow larger.

  • The Future: The growing number of Starlink satellites poses a significant concern.
  • SpaceX currently has about 4,000 Starlink satellites in orbit and has approval for almost 12,000 in total.
  • SpaceX has requested to increase this limit to 30,000, but the FCC has resisted due to potential risks to spaceflight missions.
  • Other companies like Amazon are also planning to launch their own satellite constellations, adding to the problem.

  • Efforts to Mitigate: Despite these issues, there are efforts underway to reduce the impact on astronomy.
  • Researchers are in communication with SpaceX to discuss ways to minimize the effect of their satellites on astronomical observations.

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