Smart telescope startups vie to fix astronomy’s satellite challenge
Josh Nadeau Contributor
Josh Nadeau is a Canadian journalist based in St. Petersburg who covers the intersection of Russia, technology and culture. He has written for The Economist, Atlas Obscura and The Outline.
Starlink, the satellite branch of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, has come under fire in recent months from astronomers over concerns about the negative impact that its planned satellite clusters have reportedly had — and may continue to have — on nighttime observation.
According to a preliminary report released last month by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the satellite clusters will interfere with the ability of telescopes to peer deep into space, and will limit the amount of observable hours, as well as the quality of images taken, by observatories.
The stakes involved are high, with projects like Starlink potentially being central to the future of global internet coverage, especially as new infrastructure implements 5G and edge computing. At the same time, satellite clusters — whether from Starlink or national militaries — could threaten the foundations of astronomical research.
Musk himself has been inconsistent in his response. Some days, he promises collaboration with scientists to solve the issue; on others, such as two weeks ago at the Satellite 2020 conference, he declared himself “confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries.”
Critics have pointed fingers in many directions in search of a solution to the issue. Some astronomers demand that spacefaring companies like Musk’s look after the interests of science (Amazon and Facebook have also been developing satellite projects similar to SpaceX’s). Others ask national or international governing bodies to step in and create regulations to manage the problem. But there’s another sphere altogether that may provide a solution: startups looking to develop “smart telescopes” capable of compensating for cluster interference.
Should they deliver on their promise, smart telescopes and shutter units will save observatories time and money by protecting images that are incredibly complicated to generate.