- A new study says Elon Musk’s constellation of broadband satellites is leaking radiation.
- Unintended emissions can affect the data that radio astronomers can accurately collect.
- Experts who spoke to Insider say that radio astronomy helps us study dark matter and search for alien life.
SpaceX’s network of low-orbit satellites emits “unintended electromagnetic radiation” that could negatively impact the study of deep space, a new paper says.
A group of scientists from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy say they detected radiation on board 47 out of 68 satellites observed over a period of one hour, according to a study published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, a peer-reviewed journal.
The Starlink satellites – chosen because of their abundance in the sky compared to other low-orbit satellites – were observed using the Low-Frequency Array telescope in the Netherlands. The telescope is the largest in the world and consists of 40 radio antennas spread across Europe with the ability to observe radiation wavelengths from the most distant regions.
Using the telescope, the scientists detected frequencies from the Starlink satellites at 110 to 188 megabytes — a unit of a measurement used for electromagnetic waves. This range, they noted, “includes a protected band between 150.05 and 153 MHz.”
Scientists are concerned that the radiation could affect their observations in that protected band, which is given to radio astronomers specifically to study space.
SpaceX representatives did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Vahe Peroomian, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Southern California, said that Insider’s interference from the Starlink satellites would be comparable to a signal messing up the music from a radio station.
Peroomian described him as someone who decides to “fly a satellite over Los Angeles that broadcasts every five minutes on the level of your favorite station,” which would operate under a specific frequency designated by the Federal Communications Commission.
“And so as you are driving as well as listening to the radio, every five minutes you get half a minute of static,” said Peroomian. Instead of interfering with a song, however, these Starlink satellites are interfering with weak radio waves produced by astronomical objects.
Most of the time, the scientists who spoke to Insider noted, interference frequencies are not as common an issue – although they are still encountered – because most radio telescopes are built in remote areas. However, Starlink and other low-orbit satellites, sometimes called “megaconstellations” per the study, can travel wherever they choose, including over observation telescopes.
Federico Di Vruno, one of the study’s co-authors and co-director of the International Astronomical Union’s Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Crossing, told Insider that there were concerns that there were more low-orbiting satellites. sent to space, these unintended emissions could be increased, making radio telescopes more difficult to use.
“So in terms of space, as far as we understand, there’s nothing out there that says this is the maximum level of unintended emissions that a satellite can have,” Di Vruno told Insider.
Radio astronomy helps to research the greatest mysteries of space
Scientists and astronomers who spoke to Insider say that working around electrical signals while operating sensitive radio telescopes has always been challenging.
Take, for example, a Chinese multimillion dollar radio telescope which deals with the challenge of a nearby tourist town themed after the telescope, where astronomy enthusiasts use cell phones, WiFi, and other technology that can mask electromagnetic emissions from light years away. Another example is the now defunct Iridium satellite fleet in the nineties, which produced static in frequency used by radio astronomers to help scientists learn how stars form and die.
“Radio telescopes are extremely sensitive,” Peroomian said. “We take them in the middle of nowhere because cell phones and even a microwave oven could produce a signal that would interfere with their views.”
Di Vruno told Insider that the full effect of low-orbit satellites like Starlink on radio astronomy is yet to be seen. The team, he said, hopes to include observations of celestial bodies in their next study and, for example, compare their observations with data collected before the Starlink satellites began crowding the night sky to see if they have changed.
“We are not saying at the moment that radio astronomy is doomed, and that we will not be able to do astronomy anymore. We are saying that it is important to recognize this early enough so that the discussion with operators and controllers with astronomy , to say, ‘OK, this is something and we need to discuss it and move on.'”
However, all the experts who spoke to Insider said that a significant loss or disruption to radio astronomy would be a hindrance to scientists studying the existence of dark matter, star formation, or the Time of reionization — a period beginning 400 million years ago when the first stars and galaxies were formed. There is also the financial loss: millions of dollars go into planning and building these giant radio telescopes over the years.
Jean-Luc Margot, a radio astronomer at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, who directs the initiative search to identify technology signals of extraterrestrial intelligence, Insider said interference with radio astronomy could pose a problem for his search and other researchers for life in the universe,
“It would be an amazing event with knowledge of the universe to know that we are not alone and there is a very good possibility that radio frequency interference could prevent that detection, ” Margot told Insider.
“Perhaps not the low-level emissions studied in this paper, but other types of interference, such as the proposed emissions from a certain satellite… imagine that there is an advanced civilization somewhere in the Milky Way, which has a beacon to try. to communicate with our civilization or any other civilization,” he continued: “If that frequency happens to overlap … we may not be able to detect it and it would be tragic not to be able to to do that, to make that discovery.”
Di Vruno told Insider that the researchers are collaborating with engineers at SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company that supplies nearly 4,000 Starlink satellites, to discuss ways to mitigate unintended radiation in the future.
However, in the next few years, Musk hopes to launch thousands of new satellites above Earth and experts are already concerned that this could create another problem for space observation by producing massive light pollution that would interfere with optical telescopes.