There is growing concern among astronomers that Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellites in low-Earth-orbit (LEO) may interfere with a ground-based detection system used for identifying near-Earth objects (NEOs) (otherwise known as asteroids).
The new study, titled “Impact of the SpaceX Starlink Satellites on the Zwicky Transient Facility Survey Observations,” warned images taken by a telescope in California have been recording streaks from Starlink satellites that could make it much harder to discover NEOs.
Twilight images taken by the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), an instrument that operates from Caltech’s Palomar Observatory near San Diego, scans the night sky every 48 hours, searching for NEOs. Between November 2019 and September 2021, researchers found “5301 satellite streaks that can be attributed to Starlink satellites.”
“We find that the number of affected images is increasing with time as SpaceX deploys more satellites. Twilight observations are particularly affected—a fraction of streaked images taken during twilight has increased from less than 0.5% in late 2019 to 18% in 2021 August,” lead author of the study Przemek Mróz wrote.
Mróz believes by the time Starlink launches 10,000 satellites, nearly all twilight images from ZTF will have streaks, making it more challenging to identify NEOs by the end of the decade.