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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Satellite constellations’ impact on radio astronomy

Satellite constellations' impact on radio astronomy confirmed, as emissions of low-frequency radio waves affect observations.

In recent years, the rapid deployment of satellite constellations by companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon has opened up new possibilities for global connectivity. However, a study published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics has shed light on a concerning issue associated with these satellite networks. The research reveals that the low-frequency radio waves emitted by these satellites are unintentionally polluting the wavelength, thereby adversely affecting the field of astronomy. As the number of satellites in orbit continues to increase, scientists are calling for collaborative efforts from the satellite industry and regulators to address this issue.

Understanding the Impact

The study, conducted by engineers and astronomers from the SKA Observatory, the International Astronomical Union, and the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, confirms that the leakage of low-frequency radio waves from satellite constellations is measurable and impacting radio astronomy. The emissions, originating from the satellites’ electronics, fall within a protected band specifically allocated to radio astronomy by the International Telecommunications Union.

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Current State and Future Concerns

SpaceX, in response to concerns about light pollution, has developed dimmer satellites. However, while visible wavelengths represent only one aspect of Earth-based astronomy, this study focuses on the impact on radio astronomy. Researchers using the LOFAR system detected radiation between 110 and 188 MHz from a significant portion of the observed satellites, including the protected frequency range. Although the effect is currently relatively small, it is anticipated to intensify as the number of satellites increases.

Unintentional Consequences

The emissions from satellite constellations are unintentional and not in violation of any rules. On Earth, strict regulations governed by the International Electrotechnical Commission control electromagnetic interference caused by electrical devices. However, these rules do not extend to space, leaving satellite emissions unregulated. Scientists have reached out to SpaceX and are urging the satellite industry and regulators to take action to mitigate the impact on radio astronomy.

Collaborative Efforts for a Solution

Astronomers and researchers worldwide recognize that technology development can have unforeseen side effects. With SpaceX as a prominent example, there is hope for broad support from the entire satellite industry and regulators. Astronomer Michael Kramer of the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy and the Astronomische Gesellschaft in Germany emphasizes the need for collective efforts to address this issue. Scientists are urging satellite companies to prioritize finding solutions to reduce the unintended radio wave leakage and minimize the impact on astronomy.

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As the skies above become crowded with satellite constellations, the unintended consequences on astronomy cannot be overlooked. The recent study serves as a wake-up call, highlighting the measurable impact of low-frequency radio wave leakage on radio astronomy. With thousands more satellites planned for deployment, it is crucial that satellite companies and regulators work together to develop technological solutions that mitigate interference and protect the integrity of astronomical observations. The future of both global connectivity and scientific discovery depends on finding a balance that ensures the progress of one does not impede the other.