It’s no secret that growing satellite constellations have been wreaking havoc on astronomical observations over the last couple of years.
Now, astronomers are warning that SpaceX’s Starlink internet satellites could interfere with their ability to spot asteroids careening toward Earth — a troubling development, as SpaceX is planning to launch thousands if not tens of thousands more satellites in the coming years.
In a new study published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, astronomers spotted “5,301 satellite streaks that can be attributed to Starlink satellites” in observations made by the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), an extremely wide-field camera that scans the entire northern sky every two days.
The large majority of the streaks appeared in observations taken at dawn or dust, a crucial period for “spotting potentially dangerous asteroids coming from the direction of the Sun,” according to Space.com.
But the risks are fortunately slim — at least for now.
“There is a small chance that we would miss an asteroid or another event hidden behind a satellite streak, but compared to the impact of weather, such as a cloudy sky, these are rather small effects for ZTF,” Tom Prince, co-author of the paper and a physics professor at Caltech, said in a statement.
To date, SpaceX has launched just shy of 1,500 satellites, with 272 on their way to their operational orbits.
The space company has taken the astronomy community’s concerns seriously since launching their first batch back in February 2018. In early 2020, SpaceX started testing Sun visors to stop sunlight from being reflected back onto the ground.
According to the study’s findings, the visors did have an effect, reducing the satellites’ brightness to roughly a fifth as compared to the original design.
While it’s certainly a step in the right direction, Starlink satellites are still far too bright — and could mess with other crucial observations.
READ MORE: SpaceX’s Starlink satellites leave streaks in asteroid-hunting telescope’s images [Space.com]