We’ve launched so many satellites that Hubble is already having trouble doing its job (Starlink isn’t the only culprit)

Hubble satellites 2

When Hubble reached space in 1990, the number of satellites orbiting our planet was significantly fewer than it is today. Although the commercial satellite industry arose in the Sixties decadeit was not until our times that the private sector undertook the ambitious goal of launching thousands of individual telecommunications devices.

The legendary space telescope, which is still operational and is not expected to re-enter Earth until the mid to late 2030s, has begun to suffer from the growing number of satellites in orbit. AND, According to a study published in the journal Nature Astronomyeverything seems to indicate that the problem will worsen over the years.

Problems for Hubble and future space telescopes

The researchers, belonging to institutes and universities in Spain, Germany, Romania, the United States, the Netherlands and Sucia, used an algorithm to analyze the images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope between 2002 and 2021. As you might imagine, they found that visual pollution in images caused by satellites has been increasing.

You may be wondering, then, how a device put into orbit to improve observation capabilities can be harmed by other devices put into orbit. The researchers explain it very clearly. Hubble is at an average distance from Earth of about 538 km and many of the satellites that orbit the planet are above it.

That is, the telescope has obstacles that make it difficult to operate. Let’s look at some figures to better understand what is happening. Between 2009 and 2020, the possibility of a satellite distorting an image captured by Hubble was 3.7%. In 2021, which is the year the study has reached, was 5.9%. For researchers, Starlink is just one of the culprits.

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A satellite crosses into Hubble’s field of observation

Starlink has about 3,500 satellites in orbit, but plans to increase the number to 12,000 before the end of the decade. The ambition of Elon Musk’s company goes much further. The possibility of expanding its constellation to 42,000 operational units in the future is also on the table, a huge number of satellites moving above our heads.

But there are also other actors on the scene. Let’s remember that One Web, Amazon’s Project Kuiper and Chinese companies plan to continue launching satellites. According to estimates cited in the studyduring 2030 they will be launched between 60,000 and 100,000 satellites of all kinds, which will result in 50% of the images captured by Hubble being affected, making them unusable for scientific research.

Starlink has become unbeatable in space.  China believes it is a threat and is preparing to overcome it, according to SCMP

The researchers say the problem will continue even when the mirrored space telescope is replaced by the advanced James Webb, which has already started regaling us with its images. China plans to launch its own space telescope called Xuntian in low Earth orbit (LEO), which will have a larger field of view than Hubble and be more sensitive to passing satellites.

Images: POT

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