Satellites are photobombing Hubble
Astronomers have been worried about it, and now the data are in. A new study shows that, in recent years, the increasing number of satellites in low-Earth orbit is having deleterious effects on astronomical research. The SpaceX Starlink satellites are the most notorious of these. The study shows the satellites are photobombing Hubble Space Telescope images more often, creating long, bright lines known as satellite trails across Hubble’s images, making them unusable for scientific research.
This new study shows that organizations are spending a growing fraction of their research budgets on costly infrastructures and mitigation efforts.
Sandor Kruk led the new research, which used data through 2021. Since 2021, thousands more satellites have entered low-Earth orbit. Starlink alone added more than 1,500 satellites in 2022, and many new satellites continue to launch monthly.
But Kruk’s team’s research marks the first measurements of artificial satellite contamination on Hubble observations. The team published their research in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Astronomy on March 2, 2023.
Not a new problem
Within the astronomy community, there’s been a lot of talk and worry about these satellites. You can read more in how satellites harm astronomy and what’s being done in this December 2022 article at EarthSky.
You can also read about the worst-case outcome of the increasing number of satellites: Kessler syndrome of colliding satellites could make low-Earth orbit unusable.
Samantha Lawler of the University of Regina is also no stranger to the issue. On Mastodon, she shared information from CelesTrak that shows there are currently 5,913 satellites in low-Earth orbit (that number changes constantly, with SpaceX’s relentless schedule of Starlink launches monthly).
Of the thousands of satellites already in low-Earth orbit, 62% are Starlink satellites. Certainly that means there are other companies and nations filling low-Earth orbit as well. But as she said on Mastodon:
Starlink is absurdly large both numerically and in total mass compared to anything that’s ever been in orbit before.
Satellites photobomb Hubble and impact astronomy
The New York Times quoted Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as saying:
We’re going to be living with this problem. And astronomy will be impacted. There will be science that can’t be done. There will be science that’s significantly more expensive to do. There will be things that we miss.
McDowell further illustrated the issue with Hubble on Twitter.
As a result, Hubble is JUST BELOW the main Starlink shells and constantly peering through them: pic.twitter.com/SUcnooDKi3
— Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) March 2, 2023
A sinking space telescope
When the Hubble Space Telescope launched to space in 1990, it took up residence for its scientific observations at about 380 miles (610 km) above Earth’s surface. But now, 33 years later, its orbit has degraded so that it’s closer to 330 miles (530 km) above Earth. So while it once was above the mass of satellites orbiting Earth, now it orbits just below them.
Last year, SpaceX announced a plan to boost Hubble into a higher orbit to extend its lifespan. Without a boost, the space telescope’s decaying orbit will eventually burn up and deorbit in our atmosphere. With a boost, it not only extends the life of the telescope but will help it rise above the photobombing satellites. However, the study to save Hubble is still only in the theoretical phase.
And, of course, such a solution will only help Hubble, but not the hundreds of ground-based telescopes peering through the satellites from Earth.
Bottom line: A new study shows satellites photobombing Hubble more often, ruining observations, negatively impacting scientific research, and wasting money.