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Hubble images photobombed by space hardware on the up

Big brains worry investment explosion could hit astronomy

Research published this week shows increasing interference with astronomical images caused by commercial satellites, adding to concern over the effects of the private space industry on science.

Using deep learning algorithms to scan historic images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope between 2002 and 2021, researchers found 2.7 ± 0.2 percent of images with a typical exposure time of 11 minutes contained at least one satellite trail.

But over that period, the likelihood of a space hardware photobomb have increased sharply. The mean satellite fraction for the Advanced Camera Survey/Wide-Field Channel (ACS/WFC) affected increased from 2.8 ± 0.2 percent in 2002-2005 to 4.3 ± 0.4 percent in 2018-2021, for example.

The researchers found that the proportion of images affected depends on the size of the field of view, exposure time, filter and pointing. "With the growing number of artificial satellites currently planned, the fraction of Hubble Space Telescope images crossed by satellites will increase in the next decade and will need further close study and monitoring," said the resesarch published in Nature Astronomy.

The work was led by Sandor Kruk, post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.

Speaking to the New York Times, Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said the results were concerning.

"We're going to be living with this problem. And astronomy will be impacted. There will be science that can't be done. There will be science that's significantly more expensive to do. There will be things that we miss," he said.

According to Scientific American, SpaceX's Starlink internet satellite constellation is one of the culprits when it comes to ground-based observations. California's Zwicky Transient Facility observes for supernova explosions from dying stars and asteroids passing close to Earth by scanning the sky every two days to spot temporary brightening or sudden appearance of objects that remain visible only briefly.

In January, the publication reported that a review of data going back to 2019, the year when SpaceX began launching Starlink, showed that the telescope's views with streaks were likely to be the result of satellite interference. ®

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