SpaceX Satellites Are Ruining Observations With "Unintended" Radiation

Noisy Orbit

SpaceX's gigantic and growing Starlink satellite constellation is making astronomers absolutely miserable by showing up as bright streaks in their observations.

Scientists have for years complained about Starlink constellations to that end, but a new study published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics suggests the satellites are introducing yet another confounding factor to their observations: "unintended" radiation from the electronics onboard the satellites.

These electronics are emanating low-frequency radio waves, which are being picked up by telescopes designed to scan that frequency range. That's because this range also happens to be instrumental to deep space observations.

According to the researchers, nearly 50 Starlink satellites were detected emanating this "unintended" radiation, and they expect similar detections from satellite constellations run by other companies, too — not just SpaceX.

Megahertz Mess

In this case, the radiation was detected by the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) telescope in the Netherlands, normally intended to pick up the extremely faint signals emitted by cosmic objects.

"With LOFAR, we detected radiation between 110 and 188 MHz from 47 out of the 68 satellites that were observed," co-author Cees Bassa, an astronomer from the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON), said in a press release.

"This frequency range includes a protected band between 150.05 and 153 megahertz specifically allocated to radio astronomy by the International Telecommunications Union," he added.

The researchers note that SpaceX isn't in violation of any laws, however, since there are no international regulations covering this form of radiation from satellites, unlike with terrestrial equipment.

But given the chaos Starlink satellites are causing, there likely should be. Follow-up simulations conducted by the researchers show that the effect of this radiation only gets markedly worse the bigger a constellation gets.

"This makes us not only worried about the existing constellations, but even more about the planned ones," said co-author Benjamin Winkel, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute, in the release.

Growth Spurt

Those fears are definitely warranted. Right now, SpaceX alone has around 4,000 Starlink satellites in orbit — and it has already received approval from the Federal Communications Commission for nearly 12,000 in total.

SpaceX has even pressed the FCC to raise that limit to 30,000, but the regulator, for now, has balked at that immense number after NASA expressed its concerns over the risks those satellites could pose to spaceflight missions.

Yet, those numbers are from just one company, and we haven't even considered Amazon's plans to launch some 3,000 satellites of its own to compete with Starlink.

It doesn't look like there's any stopping more of these artificial constellations from cluttering our skies. But for now, the researchers say they're in close contact with SpaceX to discuss ways to minimize the impacts on astronomy.

More on SpaceX: SpaceX Fires Up Starship Engines Ahead of Next Orbital Test