Skip to main content

Satellites like SpaceX’s Starlink are disrupting Hubble observations

Astronomers are once again worried about the effect that satellites like those used by SpaceX for its Starlink service will have on scientific research. A recent study looked at the effect that such satellites were having on observations from the Hubble Space Telescope and found that observations were already being impacted by the number of satellites nearby.

Telescopes like Hubble are particularly vulnerable to interference from satellites because of their location, in an area called low-Earth orbit (LEO). At less than 1,200 miles above the Earth’s surface, this region is prime real estate for both scientific projects like Hubble and the International Space Station and for commercial projects like satellite megaconstellations.  While there have been satellites in this region for many years, recently the number of satellites has been rising dramatically, especially due to projects like Starlink which rely on having thousands of satellites in orbit.

Related Videos
The curving light streak created by an artificial satellite mars an image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
The curving light streak created by an artificial satellite mars an image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. S. Kruk et al./Nat. Astron.

When these satellites pass in front of telescopes like Hubble, they can leave bright streaks across the images due to reflected sunlight which makes the data scientifically useless. The researchers found that just a small fraction of Hubble images are currently affected, at less than 1%, but they did show a variety of images with ruinous streaks like the one above. And the biggest concern is for the future, with more and more satellites set to launch in the next few years.

“The fraction of HST images crossed by satellites is currently small with a negligible impact on science. However, the number of satellites and space debris will only increase in the future,” the authors write.

To illustrate the potential scale of the problem, they give data on the current number of satellites compared to estimates for the number of satellites being launched in the next decade. “By the date of this analysis, there were 1562 Starlink and 320 One Web satellites in orbit, increasing the population of satellites close to the orbit of [Hubble],” they write. “Nevertheless, the number of satellites in LEO will only increase in the future, with an estimated number of satellites in LEO between 60,000 and 100,000 by the 2030s.”

SpaceX has made efforts to reduce the impact of its satellites on astronomical observations like painting them a darker color and adjusting their orbit so less reflect less sunlight. But as this study demonstrates, the issue of who gets to use space and whether priority should be given to scientific research or private companies is not going away any time soon.

The research is published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Editors' Recommendations

Hubble captures a messy irregular galaxy which hosted a supernova
The irregular spiral galaxy NGC 5486 hangs against a background of dim, distant galaxies in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The tenuous disk of the galaxy is threaded through with pink wisps of star formation, which stand out from the diffuse glow of the galaxy’s bright core.

This week's image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows a dramatic spiral galaxy called NGC 5486, which is shot through with wisps of pink showing regions where new stars are being born.

Located 110 million light-years away in the famous constellation of Ursa Major, this galaxy is a type called an irregular spiral galaxy because its arms are wandering and indistinct. If you compare the image of this galaxy to one of a quintessential spiral galaxy like NGC 2336, you'll see that a non-irregular spiral galaxy has clearly defined arms that reach out from its center and are symmetrical.

Read more
Hubble captures a cosmic sea monster with this image of a jellyfish galaxy
A jellyfish galaxy with trailing tentacles of stars hangs in inky blackness in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. As Jellyfish galaxies move through intergalactic space they are slowly stripped of gas, which trails behind the galaxy in tendrils illuminated by clumps of star formation. These blue tendrils are visible drifting below the core of this galaxy, and give it its jellyfish-like appearance. This particular jellyfish galaxy — known as JO201 — lies in the constellation Cetus, which is named after a sea monster from ancient Greek mythology. This sea-monster-themed constellation adds to the nautical theme of this image.

This week's image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows a special and delightful cosmic object: a jellyfish galaxy. These galaxies are named for their larger main body with tendrils that float along after them, like the sea creatures.

This particular jellyfish galaxy is called JO201, and is located in the constellation of Cetus. Appropriately for the sea theme, Cetus is a constellation named after a Greek mythological sea monster that sometimes had the body of a whale or serpent along with the head of a boar. In the image, you can see the main body of the galaxy in the center, with the trailing tendrils spreading down toward the bottom of the frame.

Read more
Roman Space Telescope will survey the sky 1,000 times faster than Hubble
NASA’s Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope

Since its launch in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope has been delighting space fans with its stunning views of space objects near and far. But NASA has another space telescope in the works that will be able to help answer even more of the big questions in astronomy. The Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, set to launch in 2027 and colloquially known as Roman, will look at vast areas of space to help cosmologists understand the universe on a large scale.

In astronomy research, it's important to be able to look both in very great detail and on a very wide scale. Telescopes like Hubble and James Webb have exceptional sensitivity, so they can look at extremely distant objects. Roman will be different, aiming to get a broad view of the sky. The image below illustrates the differences between the telescopes, showing what Roman and Hubble can capture in one go and comparing Hubble's detailed, but narrow view to Roman's much wider view.

Read more