The boom in space startups like Elon Musk’s SpaceX continues to be bad news for astronomers, as new satellite constellations begin to interfere with space-based telescopes.
Astronomers have long complained that satellites leave bright trails in images produced from their ground-based telescopes. Back in 2019, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk ANSWERED by suggesting that astronomers should move their telescopes into space, noting that the Earth’s atmosphere already interferes with observations on the ground.
But a new study published in Astronomy in Nature on Thursday found that the growth of satellites has also hindered the operations of space telescopes.
The authors of the study, led by Sandor Kruk of Germany’s Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, analyzed a dataset of images from the Hubble Space Telescope, located approximately 540 km above the Earth’s surface. . The telescope orbits below other satellites like those used by SpaceX’s Starlink system, which can sit up to 550 km above Earth.
Kruk and his colleagues found that, between 2009 and 2020, there is a 3.7% chance that a satellite trail will contaminate one of Hubble’s photos. That figure jumps to 5.9% in 2021, which corresponds to the rise of satellite constellations such as Starlink and OneWeb.
And the number of satellites—and thus the likely number of photos affected by their trajectories—has increased since 2021. SpaceX alone has launched more than 1,400 more Starlink satellites since the start of 2022.
SpaceX currently has over 3,700 Starlink satellites in orbit, according to data gathered by Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. SpaceX has submitted its plans to launch more than 40,000 satellites in orbit, even COO Gwynne Shotwell proposed last year the company probably wouldn’t need so much to provide “good service around the world.”
Other organizations are planning their own satellite constellations: China is reportedly planning its own network of 13,000 satellites—in part to monitor and potentially intercept Starlink, according to South China Morning Post.
“With the growing number of artificial satellites currently being planned, the fraction of Hubble Space Telescope images crossed by satellites will increase over the next decade and further study and monitoring is needed,” writing the authors of the study.
Astronomers may be forced to move telescopes farther from Earth to get clearer images — which in turn increases the cost and complexity of such missions. ““There is science that cannot be done. There is science that is very expensive to do,” McDowell said in New York Times.
(Fortunately, some of the newest and most powerful telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, are even further away, about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.)
Scientists have long grumbled about the interference caused by bright satellites crossing the sky. SpaceX has tried to address their concerns by testing new satellite designs that are less reflective, such as its DarkSat design, which uses a less reflective coating. Astronomers note that these experimental designs work dimming the lightbut not enough to completely remove the interference.
To make matters worse, SpaceX is launching now large satellites which astronomers say will be brighter than previous iterations.
SpaceX did not immediately respond Fortune’s request for comment.
SpaceX continues its mission to provide satellite internet worldwide. Screenshots of announcements posted on social media TIPS that SpaceX will soon announce a Global Roaming service that will provide internet access almost anywhere in the world. The service costs $599 up front, followed by a $200 subscription fee billed monthly.
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