The expected multiplication of the number of private satellites orbiting the Earth in the coming years causes concern within the scientific community, which is struggling more and more to observe the distant stars.
Astronomer Cliff Johnson of Northwestern University, Illinois, looks up at the stars night after night, but it is harder and harder to see them.
On the night of November 18th, Dr. Johnson was searching for dwarf galaxies using the dark energy camera of the Interamerican Observatory of Cerro Tololo in Chile.
This unique camera is used to map the sky by capturing the light emitted by distant objects over a period of time.
The camera uses a long exposure method to achieve this, in the manner of a photographer wanting to capture the light trails left behind by cars at night.
What Johnson saw that night is a bit like that kind of cliché.
“At first, I was just trying to understand what it was. And then I made links and I said to myself: “Oh yes, it’s probably Starlink.”
The Starlink satellite Internet project by SpaceX uses a constellation of small satellites working together. The first 122 satellites left Earth this year.
Eventually, the American company founded by Elon Musk wants to increase this number to at least 12,000 satellites.
This is eight times the number of satellites currently in orbit, counting those that are off.
60 of these new satellites were launched on November 11th. They are the ones who have spoiled the astronomer’s observations, as he and his colleagues are increasingly wondering how they can continue to observe what will be beyond Earth’s orbit.
This is all the more true as SpaceX is not the only company that aims to conquer the void that surrounds us. Amazon plans to put 3000 of its own devices into orbit in the coming years. Boeing has similar sights.
Governments are also contributing to the increase in the number of machines in orbit. Canada announced last summer a $600 million investment in a system of 300 telecommunications satellites as part of an Internet infrastructure project.
The first launch of 60 satellites by Space X in May had already caused consternation among astronomers. These devices reflect a lot of light, Musk, had promised to adjust the color of the satalites so they would not reflect light.
“It was kind of unlucky, I think, that we were looking exactly where the satellites were going,” Dr. Johnson told Kent News Net. “It was rather shocking to see all these satellites in front of our lensand see later traces on the images we took.”
If these traces are so problematic, it is because they hide what is behind them. Data needed to make accurate observations are therefore missing, which complicates the work of astronomers.
There are ways to fill these data gaps, for the moment, but this may be more and more complicated with the increase in the number of satellites in orbit. Tens of thousands of them could be a serious threat to the future of astronomy.
Jennifer MacBride a graduate of Imperial College Business School. Jennifer is based in London but travels much of the year. Jennifer has written for BBC, Motherboard, Apple Insider, and the Huffington Post UK. Jennifer is a Tech reporter, focusing on technology, national security and social media.