Study says Starlink satellites leak unintentional radiation

April 18, 2020, Brandenburg, Sieversdorf: Two Starlink satellites can be seen as streaks of light in the night sky (captured with an exposure time of 15 seconds).
Patrick Belloul/Image Coalition via Getty Images

  • A new study says that 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 radio astronomy helps us study dark matter and search for alien life.

A new research paper says SpaceX’s network of low-orbit satellites is emitting “unintentional electromagnetic radiation” that could negatively affect the study of deep space.

A group of scientists from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy said they detected radiation aboard 47 out of 68 satellites observed over the course of an hour, according to a study published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, a peer-reviewed journal.

The Starlink satellites — chosen for their abundance in the sky compared to other low-orbit satellites — were observed using the Low Frequency Array Telescope in the Netherlands. telescope is The largest in the world It consists of 40 radio antennas spread across Europe with the ability to monitor wavelengths of radiation from the most remote regions in space.

Using a telescope, scientists detected frequencies from Starlink satellites from 110 to 188 megahertz – a unit of A measurement used for electromagnetic waves. They note that this band “includes a protected band between 150.05 and 153MHz.”

This protected range, reserved for radio astronomers specifically for space study, has scientists worried that radiation could affect their observations.

SpaceX representatives did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

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Internal disturbances from Starlink satellites can be compared to a signal spoiling music from a radio station, Fahey Beromian, a University of Southern California professor of physics and astronomy, told me.

Beromian described it as having decided to “send a satellite over Los Angeles so that it broadcasts every five minutes at the level of your favorite station,” which will operate on a specific frequency set by the FCC.

“And as you’re driving with the radio on, every five minutes you get half a minute of stillness in there,” said Beromian. Instead of interrupting a song, these Starlink satellites interrupt faint radio waves produced by astronomical objects.

The scientists who spoke to Insider note that, most of the time, interfering frequencies are not uncommon with this problem — although they still exist — because most radio telescopes are built in remote areas. However, Starlink and other low-orbiting satellites, which are sometimes known as “massive stars” according to the study, can travel anywhere they choose, including via observing telescopes.

Federico Di Frono, one of the study’s co-authors and co-director of the International Astronomical Union’s Center for Dark and Quiet Sky Protection from Satellite Constellation Interference, told Insider that there are concerns that as more low-orbit satellites are sent into space, these emissions could be amplified. unintended, making the use of radio telescopes more difficult.

“For space, as far as we understand, there’s nothing that says this is the maximum level of unintended emissions a satellite can have,” DeFrono told Insider.

Radio astronomy helps search for the greatest mysteries of space

Scientists and astronomers who spoke to Insider say working around the electrical signals when operating sensitive radio telescopes has always been a challenge.

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Take, for example, a multi-million dollar Chinese radio telescope It copes with the challenge of a nearby telescope-themed tourist town, where astronomy enthusiasts use cell phones, WiFi, and other technology that might block electromagnetic emissions from light years away. Another example is the now-defunct fleet of Iridium satellites from the 1990s, which produced Fixed at a frequency used by radio astronomers To help scientists Learn how stars form and die.

“Radio telescopes are very sensitive,” said Beromian. “We’re building them in the middle of nowhere because cell phones and even microwave ovens can produce a signal that would interfere with their observations.”

DeFrono told Insider that the overall impact of low-orbit satellites like Starlink’s on radio astronomy is not yet clear. He said the team 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 into the night sky to see if they have changed.

“We’re not saying now that radio astronomy is doomed, that we’re not going to be able to do astronomy anymore. We’re saying that it’s important to recognize this early enough to have discussions with operators with regulators with astronomy, to say, ‘Okay, This is something we need to discuss and move forward.”

However, all of the experts who spoke to Insider said significant loss or interference in radio astronomy would be a hindrance to scientists studying the presence of dark matter, star formation, or The era of reionization – a period that began 400 million years ago when the first stars and galaxies formed. There is also a financial loss: millions of dollars are spent planning and building these huge radio telescopes over decades.

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Jean-Luc Margot, radio astronomer at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, who leads Research initiative to identify technological signs Of extraterrestrial intelligence, he told Insider that radio astronomy interference could present a problem for him and other researchers looking for life in the universe,

“It would be a truly extraordinary event in the knowledge of the universe to know that we are not alone and that there is a real possibility that radio frequency interference could prevent this discovery from happening,” Margo told Insider.

“Maybe not the low-level emissions that are studied in this paper, but other types of interference, such as the intended emissions of a particular satellite… Imagine that there is an advanced civilization somewhere in the Milky Way, that has a beacon to try to communicate with our civilization or Any other civilization, he continued: “If interference occurs at this frequency … we may not be able to detect it and it would be tragic if we were not able to do so, to make this discovery.”

The researchers are collaborating with engineers from SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company that provides nearly 4,000 Starlink satellites, DiFrono told Insider, to discuss ways to mitigate unintended radiation in the future.

However, over the next few years, Musk hopes to send thousands of new satellites above Earth, and experts are already concerned that this could create another problem for space monitoring by producing severe light pollution that could affect optical telescopes.

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