Astronomers Slam Massive BlueWalker 3 Satellite For Being Obnoxiously Bright

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Astronomers are slamming a massive low-Earth orbit communications satellite because it is brighter in the night sky than most stars. Astronomers are concerned that without some type of regulation on these extremely bright satellites, the effect could be detrimental to observing the stars from Earth and performing radio astronomy.

The issue involves multiple companies looking to place constellations of satellites, groups of possibly hundreds of satellites, to deliver mobile or broadband service worldwide. These satellites, such as AST's 693-square-foot BlueWalker 3, can be extremely large and bright in the night sky from Earth. This has led an international team of scientists led by astronomers from the IAU Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference (CPS) to publish a paper assessing the impact of the BlueWalker 3 on astronomy.

"The night sky is a unique laboratory that allows scientists to conduct experiments that cannot be done in terrestrial laboratories," remarked Dr. Dave Clements from the Department of Physics at Imperial. "Astronomical observations have provided insights into fundamental physics and other research at the boundaries of our knowledge and changed humanity's view of our place in the cosmos. The pristine night sky is also an important part of humanity's shared cultural heritage and should be protected for society at large and for future generations."

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BlueWalker 3 antenna array unfolded.

This is not the first time scientists and astronomers have complained about satellites interfering with their research of the cosmos. A study released in January 2022 analyzed the streaks that were being left in photographs of the night sky caused by Starlink satellites. It found 5301 satellite streaks could be attributed to Starlink between November 2019 and September 2021. Since that time, SpaceX has taken measures to decrease the brightness of its satellites in space by using a dielectric mirror film on the bottom of its Gen 2 satellites, which is ten times better at reducing observed brightness than the first-generation-film using a Bi-Directional Reflectance Distribution Function (BRDF) metric.

The CPS initiated an international observing campaign of BlueWalker 3 satellites, contributed to by amateur observers worldwide. Data was collected over 130 days, and showed an abrupt increase coinciding with the complete unfolding of the antenna array of BlueWalker 3, the largest commercial antenna system ever deployed into low-Earth orbit at 693 square feet.

According to the findings, BlueWalker 3 could also interfere with radio astronomy. Dr. Mike Peel remarked, "BlueWalker 3 actively transmits at radio frequencies that are close to bands reserved for radio astronomy, and existing observatory protections from radio interference may not be sufficient. Further research is therefore required to develop strategies for protecting existing and upcoming telescopes from the numerous satellites planned for launch over the next decade."

As more companies look to get into the race for space-based communications like BlueWalker 3, the problem will seemingly only worsen if it is not nipped in the bud now. Hopefully, companies, along with the help of astronomers and scientists, can figure out a method that will not impede the progress of either moving forward.