scorecardElon Musk's Starlink satellites are ruining images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, threatening future science
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Elon Musk's Starlink satellites are ruining images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, threatening future science

Morgan McFall-Johnsen   

Elon Musk's Starlink satellites are ruining images from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, threatening future science
LifeScience5 min read
  • NASA's Hubble Space Telescope is getting more satellites ruining its images, a new study found.
  • Elon Musk's Starlink constellation is a major driver of satellite crowding in Earth's orbit.

Starlink satellites may pose a threat to future science from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and other Earth-orbiting observatories.

The Starlink constellation now includes more than 3,000 satellites launched by SpaceX, as part of CEO Elon Musk's vision to blanket Earth in high-speed broadband internet.

These satellites have already been photobombing telescope observations on the ground. But now even telescopes in space aren't safe anymore, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Hubble images streaked with white lines show the impact of just one satellite flying through the telescope's field of view.

The proportion of Hubble images that look like this is increasing as more satellites fill Earth's orbit, the study found.

Images like this can hamper astronomers' work, because the streaks block the distant galaxies and stars they're trying to study. For now, that's not a huge problem, according to NASA.

"Most of these streaks are readily removed using standard data reduction techniques, and the majority of affected images are still useable. Satellite streaks do not currently pose a significant threat to Hubble's science efficiency and data analysis," NASA spokesperson Claire Andreoli told Insider in an email.

Sometimes removal methods help, and sometimes they don't, according to Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who was not involved in the new study.

"It's certainly an overstatement to say that everything with a streak is ruined, but I think it's an understatement to say that it doesn't matter," he told Insider. "Some of them are not useable for the science purpose that they were meant for."

The proportion of satellite-damaged images could skyrocket in the next five years, forever changing our ability to study the cosmos from Earth's orbit.

Hubble peers through a growing 'wall' between us and the universe

Over its three-decade reign, Hubble has fundamentally changed our understanding of the universe.

It allowed astronomers to calculate the age and expansion of the universe, track two interstellar objects zipping through our solar system, and peer at galaxies formed shortly after the Big Bang.

Even today, with the James Webb Space Telescope taking the spotlight, Hubble is still discovering new events and objects in the cosmos. It may have even more groundbreaking observations yet to come, as long as it can see the universe clearly.

Over time, Hubble has naturally sunk to lower altitudes. Earth's gravity has drawn the observatory deeper within the field of Starlink and other satellites.

The new study calculated that the chance of seeing a satellite in a Hubble image was 3.7% from 2009 to 2020, but climbed to 5.9% in 2021. That increase directly correlates to the rise of Starlink satellites, according to the study authors.

So far SpaceX has launched more than 3,000 Starlink satellites and plans to eventually maintain up to 42,000 satellites in orbit. That's an outrageously large number. For reference, there were about 1,000 operational satellites in orbit in the year 2010.

"Starlink is going to start dominating in the next couple years," McDowell said.

"It's just another brick in the wall between us and the universe," he added.

In the not-so-distant future, Earth's orbit could become so crowded that it no longer makes sense to put observatories like Hubble there anymore. NASA and other agencies may have to splurge to send their telescopes far away from interfering satellites — as far as Webb, which is about 1 million miles from Earth, roughly 3,000 times further than Hubble.

SpaceX did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Starlink could grow to mar one-third of Hubble's observations

NASA has said it plans to continue operating Hubble until the mid-2030s. By then, the authors of the new study estimate, there could be 100,000 satellites in Earth's orbit, with a 33% chance that one will appear in an image from Hubble's wide-field instrument, and a 41% chance for the observatory's other key instrument, its survey camera.

That's about one-third of Hubble's observations "trashed," McDowell said. That would limit the amount of science Hubble can accomplish in the years it has left.

"For every three observations you want, you actually have to make four observations because one of them is going to be hit," McDowell said. "And it could get worse than that. It could be like, 70% of the observations are ruined eventually, if you have enough satellites."

If SpaceX gets its Starship mega-rocket up and running, the company will be able to launch more satellites, faster.

NASA and SpaceX announced last year that they were discussing the possibility of a SpaceX mission to boost Hubble into a higher orbit, but neither entity has shared updates since then.

"The study regarding the possibilities of reboosting Hubble is ongoing," Andreoli said.

China's upcoming space telescope has a serious satellite problem

For now, Hubble's Starlink problem is manageable, partly because the telescope uses a narrow field of vision. That allows it to pinpoint particular objects deep in the cosmos. So the odds are relatively low that a satellite will zip through such a small patch of sky while Hubble is looking.

But China is planning to launch its Xuntian telescope with a wide field of view into low-Earth orbit, among the satellites, at the end of this year, according to The New York Times.

"I think that's going to have huge problems with Starlink and with other satellites," McDowell said.

Generally there are three possible futures for the growing crowd of satellites in Earth's orbit.

"There's a regime where it's annoying. There's a regime where it's expensive to work around. And then if you do enough of them, there's a regime in which you just basically can't operate anymore," McDowell said. "That's going to be self-limiting, because the satellites are going to start hitting each other, the companies are going to start losing money, and then they're going to decide to do something about it, finally."