NASA wants the public to help track light pollution from VLEO satellites

Brittany A. Roston - Mar 6, 2020, 5:43 pm CST
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NASA wants the public to help track light pollution from VLEO satellites

NASA wants the public to help it track very-low Earth orbit (VLEO) satellites and the potential light pollution issues they may cause. The space agency launched a public science project that anyone can participate in, stating that it only requires a tripod, smartphone, and the use of a website that reveals when satellites will be overhead. Similarly, the European Space Observatory is also tracking these satellites for the same reason.

VLEO satellites like the Starlink clusters from SpaceX have raised concerns from astronomers and some space agencies over their potential for disrupting night sky observations. These satellites are fairly bright in the twilight sky, appearing like bright dots or streaks in images, depending on the camera’s shutter speed duration and some other factors.

Earlier this week, NASA launched a public science initiative called Satellite Streak Watcher that asks the public to take pictures of these satellites and share the images with the space agency. This long-term project will help experts determine what kind of impact these satellites may have on space observation efforts and ‘the population growth of these satellites over time.’

In a statement today, the ESO says it commissioned a study to determine the impact of satellite ‘mega-constellations’ on astronomy. According to the results of this study, satellite constellations like the ones being developed by Amazon, SpaceX, and more will result in the Very Large Telescope and Extremely Large Telescope being ‘moderately affected.’ The biggest impact will be on long-duration exposures.

However, the study found that wide-field surveys would be most affected by these satellites, especially ones involving large telescopes. Up to half of the exposures from the Vera C. Rubin Observatory could be ‘severely affected’ by these satellites, for example, with few mitigations options at this time, at least according to the study. The impact of the satellites would depend on things like the time of night and time of year.


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