Huge 'cell towers in space' pose major threat to radio astronomy, scientists warn

Huge ‘cell towers in space’ pose major threat to radio astronomy, scientists warn

Trails in the night sky left by BlueWalker 3 are juxtaposed with the 4-meter Nicholas U. Mayall Telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory, a program of NSF's NOIRLab.  The lights of Tucson, Arizona are visible in the background.

A trail left by the BlueWalker 3 satellite over Kitt Peak National Observatory.

The BlueWalker 3 satellite recently deployed its huge antenna array, becoming one of the brightest objects in the night sky. The possibility of launching more of these satellites into low Earth orbit worries astronomers about the effect on data collected by radio telescopes, which could threaten our ability to learn more about the surrounding cosmos.

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has published a statement Monday to express concerns about AST SpaceMobile’s prototype satellite and the impact it could have on astronomy. That the bright satellite poses a threat to optical astronomy has been widely acknowledged by scientists, but the IAU is also claiming that Blue Walker type satellites pose a threat to radio astronomy.

Additionally, the UAI, an NGO dedicated to safeguarding astronomy, wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission urging it to consider the threat posed by satellite constellations to astronomical observations of the sky. The union has also entered into a discussion with AST SpaceMobile on mitigation methods for BlueWalker 3.

“The UAI and the CPS [Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference] recognize that new satellite constellations play an important role in improving global communications,” the IAU wrote in its statement. “However, their interference with astronomical observations could seriously impede progress in our understanding of the cosmos.” To which he added: “Their deployment must therefore be conducted with due consideration of their side effects and with efforts to minimize their impact on astronomy.”

Blue Walker 3 spear aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on September 10, deploying its antenna about two months later. The satellite’s 693-square-foot (64-square-meter) antenna array has already proven problematic enough, with measurements confirming that BlueWalker 3 eclipses most stars in the night sky and is even brighter than some constellations. according at UAI.

Apart from his visible glare, the satellite also transmits strong radio waves at frequencies that are currently only used for cell phones on Earth. The IAU has called these types of satellites “cellular towers in space”, saying they “have the potential to have a significant impact on radio astronomy research as well as geodetic studies”. [the science of measuring Earth’s geometric shape, its orientation in space, and its gravity field] and space physics experiments.

The prototype satellite is the launch of AST SpaceMobile’s attempt to build the first space-based broadband cellular network directly accessible by cell phones. The single satellite is a pain, but the biggest risk comes from the Texas-based company’s plan to send more than 100 such satellites into orbit by the end of 2024.

A swarm of these large satellites could have a huge impact on the already sensitive observations of radio telescopes. These telescopes point their antennae skyward to collect faint radio waves, which are not visible to optical telescopes, which astronomers use to create images of celestial objects that would otherwise be hidden by gas and dust.

“Astronomers are building radio telescopes as far away from human activity as possible, looking for places on the planet where cell coverage is limited or non-existent,” said Philip Diamond, chief executive of the SKA observatory, in the communicated. “Frequencies assigned to cell phones are already difficult to observe, even in the radio silence zones we have created for our facilities. New satellites such as BlueWalker 3 have the potential to worsen this situation and compromise our ability to do science if not properly mitigated.

AST SpaceMobile is not the only company building a constellation of satellites. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also build an internet constellation in low earth orbit, with 3,023 satellites currently in orbit and with plans to deploy more than 42,000 satellites. Amazon also plans to launch a fleet of 3,236 satellites to Kuiper Projectwhile OneWeb already has spear 428 satellites out of a planned total of 648.

The growing number of satellites being launched threatens scientists’ ability to learn more about the universe, and time may be running out to protect our precious views of the night sky, as well as important astronomical views hidden from human eyes.

After: After deploying its massive network, the commercial satellite becomes as bright as the stars of Orion

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