SpaceX – It’s no wonder that the spacecraft business has advanced given the quantity of tools at our disposal.
With more satellites in the sky, determining which belongs to which corporation is practically impossible.
SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corp.) is among those with a large number of satellites orbiting the Earth, accounting for more than half of the operating space stations.
Although this is a wonderful accomplishment, it is also becoming a problem since the number of satellites in low Earth orbit is expanding at a rate that regulations are unable to keep up with.
SpaceX launched 21 additional satellites on February 27 to connect with the broadband Starlink fleet.
As a result, there are presently 3,660 Starlink satellites in operation.
According to astronomer Jonathan McDowell’s calculations, it accounts for more than half of the almost 7,300 operational satellites in orbit.
“These big low-orbit internet constellations have come from nowhere in 2019, to dominating the space environment in 2023,” said McDowell.
“It really is a massive shift and a massive industrialization of low orbit.”
Streaks in the sky
SpaceX has been sending Starlink satellites into orbit since 2019 in order to offer broadband connectivity to rural parts of the world.
Around the same time period, astronomers have warned that the SpaceX satellites might interfere with their work, causing streaks on telescope photos as they pass by.
The Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990 and orbits more than 310 miles above Earth, is prone to recording satellite streaks.
Sandor Kruk of the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and her colleagues published research in Nature Astronomy on March 3.
According to the researchers, the number of Hubble photos damaged by low-orbit satellite illumination has grown by 50%.
The amount of photos obscured by satellites remains low.
Yet, for Hubble’s cameras, it increased from about 3% between 2002 and 2005 to more than 4% between 2018 and 2021.
Consider the fact that there are now hundreds more Starlink satellites than in 2021.
“The fraction of [Hubble] images crossed by satellites is currently small with a negligible impact on science,” said Kruk and her colleagues.
“However, the number of satellites and space debris will only increase in the future.”
The team predicts that by the 2030s, the chances of a satellite entering Hubble’s field of vision every time it takes a picture would be between 20% and 50%.
They examined over 100,000 individual Hubble pictures from over 10,000 citizen scientists participating in the Hubble Asteroid Hunter project for the study.
A deep learning algorithm was taught to detect satellite streaks in photos while disregarding comparable characteristics created by natural processes such as:
- Cosmic rays
- Gravitational lensing
While the data for the analysis was collected in 2021, additional satellites are now in orbit, implying that the situation is significantly worse.
Kruk and her colleagues arrived at the following depressing conclusion:
“With the growing number of artificial satellites currently planned, the fraction of Hubble Space Telescope images crossed by satellites will increase in the next decade and will need further close study and monitoring.”
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The increase of Starlink satellites, according to astronomer Samantha Lawler of the University of Regina in Canada, raises a problem: space traffic.
The Starlink satellites all orbit the Earth at the same altitude.
“Starlink is the densest patch of space that has ever existed,” said Lawler.
The satellites avoid colliding by maneuvering themselves out of each other’s way.
Moreover, 310 miles is a common altitude for Hubble, the International Space Station, and the Chinese space station.
“If there is some kind of collision [between Starlinks], some kind of mishap, it could immediately affect human lives,” Lawler added.
Starlink satellites are launched at least once a week by SpaceX.
It launched 51 satellites on March 3.
In addition, several firms are deploying broadband satellite constellations alongside SpaceX.
Scientists believe that by the 2030s, there might be 100,000 satellites in low Earth orbit.
At the time being, no international laws limit the number of satellites that a private business can launch or the orbits that they can occupy.
“The speed of commercial development is faster than the speed of regulation change,” said McDowell.
“There needs to be an overhaul of space traffic management and space regulation generally to cope with these massive commercial projects.”
A need for regulation
Astronomers have been banding together to avoid the situation from deteriorating worse.
In a recent development, a multinational partnership petitioned the United Nations for assistance, asking the formation of an expert committee to solve the matter.
Meanwhile, astronomers can discover (and maybe repair) destroyed photos using data and filtering algorithms.
According to NASA, the majority of the impacted photos are still usable, but the additional time and cost for astronomical study aren’t ideal.
Astronomers are also requesting that satellite operators collaborate with them, including making the spacecraft less reflective.
SpaceX reacted to the request by experimenting with Starlink mitigation options like as black paint that absorbs sunlight.
Yet, the mitigation was not as successful as they had hoped.
They’ve also experimented with other ways, such as adding a visor to prevent reflecting sunlight and modifying orientations to decrease surface area, all of which the business claims are extremely successful.
In addition, SpaceX is testing “dielectric mirror film” to reflect light away from Earth.
Image source: Bleeping Computer