Experts concerned Starlink satellites could prevent asteroid detection

Planetary defense experts have expressed their concern in a new survey that growing satellite numbers in orbit around Earth may impact asteroid detection.

Published Sep 2, 2022 5:03 AM CDT   |   Updated Tue, Sep 27 2022 3:07 AM CDT
1 minute & 33 seconds read time

A new survey of planetary defense experts by the Apollo Academic Surveys and Carrie Nugent of the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts has sought to gauge how much of an issue satellite overcrowding could become.

Experts concerned Starlink satellites could prevent asteroid detection 01

The survey covered topics relating to near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) and their detection. All 34 experts rated themselves as at least slightly concerned about the potential for satellite overcrowding to impact astronomers' ability to detect asteroids. Twenty-four percent of respondents reported being extremely concerned. One respondent cited an early-2022 study, which found that "LEO [Low Earth Orbit] satellites can severely affect observations taken during twilight, and that is an important parameter space for NEO [Near-Earth Object] search."

A significant culprit in the growing issue of satellite overcrowding is SpaceX, which since launching its Starlink satellite constellation, has added over 3,200 satellites into orbit around Earth, contributing the most individual satellites to orbit of any corporation or country. However, a few hundred of this number are now inactive. Still, like many inactive satellites produced by other manufacturers, they often continue to orbit Earth long after they become defunct, with a handful falling back to Earth or burning up in the atmosphere.

SpaceX currently intends to launch up to 42,000 Starlink satellites, not to mention other companies' and countries' plans. Cristina Thomas of Northern Arizona University wrote that "it's absolutely terrible that nothing concrete is being done to combat this issue." In her view, "this is only going to get worse and make a lot of problems for ground-based discovery."

However, new space-based observatories will soon be arriving on the scene, with NASA looking to launch its NEO Surveyor space telescope in 2028. One anonymous survey participant wrote, "space-based assets are the correct advancement of NEO discovery. Ground-based search assets are of diminishing importance."

You can view the survey by Apollo Academic Surveys here.

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