"We're going to be living with this problem. And astronomy will be impacted."
Humbling the Hubble
The poor ol' Hubble Space Telescope is already being overshadowed by its glorious successor, the James Webb. And now, seemingly unable to catch a break after thirty years of loyal service, the Hubble's having some trouble peering through an increasingly crowded sky.
According to a new study published in the journal Nature Astronomy, more and more images captured by Hubble are being tainted by satellites in orbit, which have drastically shot up in number since the telescope launched in 1990.
"We're going to be living with this problem. And astronomy will be impacted," Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who was not involved in the study, told The New York Times.
"There will be science that can't be done," he added. "There will be science that's significantly more expensive to do. There will be things that we miss."
The Big Culprit
Many of these troublesome satellites are launched by a host of private companies. But the ones that draw the most ire belong to SpaceX, whose Starlink satellites are renowned for their bright, linear formations in the sky.
From 2009 to 2020, the odds of a satellite appearing in a Hubble image sat at 3.7 percent. But just one year later in 2021, that number dramatically shot up to 5.9 percent. The culprit for the increase, naturally, were the many Starlink satellites launched over that time period. Since the study's cutoff in 2021, the amount of Starlink satellites in orbit has more than doubled to over 3,500.
When astronomers decried the Starlink satellites for obstructing ground-based telescopes, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, callously suggested that they simply "move telescopes to orbit."
But even if astronomer's were able to abide Musk's suggestion, which would be ridiculously expensive and wasteful, it still wouldn't solve the problem. Hubble, obviously, has always been in orbit over 300 miles above Earth, and if it's getting affected there, how far must astronomers across the globe go to accommodate Starlink's satellites?
"Not only do you have to put your telescopes in space, but you also have to put them above all the other traffic," McDowell said.
Invasion of the Satellites
Right now, the interference is only minor, and in most cases can be "readily removed using standard data reduction techniques, and the majority of affected images are still usable," a NASA spokesperson told NYT.
In years to come, though, that will almost certainly change. The study estimates that there could be up to 100,000 satellites encircling the planet by the 2030s. Starlink on its own wants to reach 42,000 in orbit.
"When will Hubble not be useful anymore?" asked study co-author Mark McCaughrean, an astronomer at the European Space Agency. "That might be 10 or 20 years away, but it’s not inconceivable that there’s a point at which you say, 'Let’s not bother anymore.'"
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