A massive satellite is about to take flight, deploying its giant antenna array to potentially block astronomers’ views of the cosmos. AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 is due to launch on Saturday to test the company’s broadband networking technology, but the prototype satellite is extremely bright and could interfere with celestial observations.
BlueWalker should climb into low Earth orbit aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket at 7:51 p.m. ET from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Once in low Earth orbit, the satellite test about the Texas-based company’s ability to beam Internet connectivity from space directly to people’s cellphones. AST SpaceMobile CEO Abel Avellan recently vaunted on Twitter, “Made in TX – size matters!” referring to the satellite. And indeed, it does, as this bad boy sports a 693-square-foot (64-square-meter) antenna array that will fan out into space. With its antenna fully extended, the satellite is expected to be among the brightest objects in the night sky, according to Sky and Telescope.
By pointing at Earth, the satellite’s giant array will reflect sunlight back towards our planet, potentially causing light streaks in astronomical images and interfering with scientific data. Worse still, if the test satellite succeeds in its mission, the company could send more than 100 of its satellites into orbit by the end of 2024 to create a full internet constellation. The operational satellites, which are to be named BlueBirds, could cause even more interference as they are expected to be similar in size to BlueWalker 3.
Astronomers have expressed concern over the satellite’s brightness as it joins hordes of commercial satellite constellations currently being built in low Earth orbit. From the Rubin Observatory’s location on Chile’s Cerro Pachon, the BlueWalker satellite will be as bright as the star Vega near zenith at dusk, according to Connie Walker, an astronomer at the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) NOIRLab. “These new satellites should saturate Rubin’s observations,” Walker told Gizmodo in an email.
In an effort to understand the extent of this threat, NSF’s NOIRLab and the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Center for the Protection of Dark and Calm Skies from Satellite Constellation Interference have called on astronomers around the world whole to make observations of the luminosity of the satellite. once in orbit. “[Low Earth orbit satellites] disproportionately affect science programs that require twilight observations, such as searches for Earth-threatening asteroids and comets, outer solar system objects, and the visible-light counterparts of short-lived gravitational-wave sources,” NSF wrote in a report.
BlueWalker launches into space with 60 of the SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, which have already disrupted astronomical observations. Elon Musk’s private space company is seeking to launch 42,000 satellites into low Earth orbit to build a broadband internet megaconstellation. Although SpaceX has so far only received approval for 12,000 satellites from the Federal Communications Commission. But the company is in talks with the IAU to find ways to reduce the brightness of their satellites so they don’t interfere with images of the cosmos.
Advancement in technology is opening up an exciting era for our connectivity, so hopefully it doesn’t come at the cost of our ability to look at celestial objects and gather valuable data about the universe.
After: SpaceX launches 3,000th Starlink satellite as Elon’s internet constellation continues to grow
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