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The Hubble Space Telescope, renowned for capturing breathtaking photos of space while advancing astronomy, is in danger.

Thousands of satellites being launched by private corporations are photobombing the telescope, leaving behind lengthy, bright streaks and curves of light that may be impossible to clear. And things just seem to be getting worse.

According to a study that was published on Thursday in the journal Nature Astronomy, more Hubble photos are now being ruined by passing satellites. The data is only available till 2021. Since then, SpaceX and other firms have launched thousands more satellites, and many more are anticipated to enter orbit in the years to come, potentially harming the Hubble and other space telescopes.

“We’re going to be living with this problem. And astronomy will be impacted,” said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who was not involved in the study. “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.”

The impact of the Hubble Space Telescope cannot be understated. We now know, for instance, that the universe is 13.8 billion years old, that most galaxies have a supermassive black hole at their centre, and that stars develop through violent processes as a result of the observatory. The beautiful gas and dust clouds in the “pillars of creation” and the glimpse of almost 10,000 galaxies in the “Hubble ultra deep field” are just two examples of the Hubble’s stunning photographs.

But, since the Hubble was put into orbit in 1990, there have been a considerable increase in the number of satellites, and today it is viewing the cosmos through a field of satellites.

The first series of Starlink satellites, which will transmit internet signals around the world, were launched by SpaceX in May 2019. Soon after, astronomers expressed alarm over Starlink’s streaks, worried that they would threaten a number of missions to view the cosmos with telescopes on Earth.

Yet, Hubble, which is 335 miles above Earth’s surface in low-Earth orbit, is actually less than 10 miles below most Starlink satellites. This indicates that interference from satellite constellations continues to affect the observatory and other orbiting space telescopes.

You must position your telescopes above all other traffic in addition to placing them in space, according to McDowell.

He predicted that we will have to do that in the future. Nevertheless, that is not feasible for the observatories that are already in low-Earth orbit or the spacecraft that will be developed and launched by governments in the ensuing years.

A library of photographs from 2002 to 2021 was examined by astronomer Sandor Kruk and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany to determine the impact of satellite constellations on Hubble.

Several citizen scientists assisted them by sifting through photos and labelling those with obvious satellite streaks. Then, a machine-learning algorithm that examined more than 100,000 distinct Hubble photographs used that data set as a training set. According to their findings, the likelihood of spotting a satellite in a Hubble image between 2009 and 2020 is only 3.7%. Yet, the likelihood of seeing one in 2021 is 5.9%, an increase that experts claim is related to Starlink. There were 1,562 Starlink satellites in orbit on the analysis date. OneWeb, a different business, had lofted 320 satellites.

The new study’s co-author and astronomer at the European Space Agency, Mark McCaughrean, is confident in their findings but points out that this is now only a small concern. Normally, Hubble stacks several photos on top of one another, erasing any satellites in the process.

NASA also concurs. The majority of these streaks are easily removed using conventional data reduction techniques, and the majority of affected images are still usable, a spokesperson said regarding the most recent study. “Such analyses may show a gradual increase in detected satellite trails over time,” the spokesperson said. “Hubble’s science productivity and data analysis are not now significantly threatened by satellite streaks,” the statement reads.

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