“The rapid proliferation of satellites in recent years has alarmed stargazers from all walks of life. As spacecraft move across the sky, they create bright trails and an ambient glow in the sky that can destroy astronomical images and obscure fainter celestial objects that would otherwise be visible to the naked eye.” - Becky Ferreira, New York Times
In 2022, a new satellite was launched, outshining all other man-made satellites and most stars (both literally and figuratively). The BlueWalker 3, launched by AST SpaceMobile, has become the poster child of visual space interference, finding itself at the center of recent discussions of keeping the night sky natural and accessible to all. Read on to discover its purpose, why there’s cause for concern, and potential solutions for preventing celestial obtrusion.
What Is the Purpose of BlueWalker 3?
According to the New York Times, “Initially launched in September 2022, BlueWalker 3 is the forerunner of AST SpaceMobile’s BlueBird satellites,” which seek to improve global access to the internet in spots around the globe that have cellular coverage gaps. Truly, it’s a noble cause, to democratize access to online and cell services across the world, thus including more people in the collective consciousness that is the internet.
That lovely cause complicates the issue, unfortunately, especially considering that it has proved to successfully improve connectivity in traditional cellular dead zones. On September 19th, 2023, the BlueWalker 3 managed to allow an engineer in a dead zone in Hawaii to have a two-minute-long call with another engineer in Spain.
AST SpaceMobile estimates that 90 total of these low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites could enable global cellular service, which could make it so that everyone with a device to access the internet could access the information we have stored online. This democratization effort wouldn’t just help connectivity, it could provide education, share cultures across the planet, and connect people all over the globe. But, in order to successfully achieve such a feat, AST SpaceMobile would need to create Satellite Constellations, which are large groups of satellites that work as individual components of a larger system.
Why Does It Matter that BlueWalker 3 Is Visible?
The massive BlueWalker 3 satellite, which has the largest antenna of all commercial satellites to date, is shining bright enough to leave streaks in the sky of time-lapse imagery as it passes, effectively blocking out any of the celestial bodies it passes in front of. With a full year of observation, scientists have been able to record the precise path of the sky it covers, and there is growing concern over what the night sky might look like should more LEO satellites of this size join it.
The BlueWalker 3 Satellite has been recently making headlines due to its record-breaking visibility, but it isn’t just its brightness that will be an issue for scientists. In addition, according to Frederico Di Vruno (co-director of the International Astronomical Union’s Centre for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky), “Besides the effect on visible observations, BlueWalker 3 could also interfere with radio astronomy, since it transmits in radio frequencies close to those that radio telescopes observe in”. We will either have to rapidly adapt our technology to counteract these interferences or learn to cope with losing the ability to see and record a natural night sky.
Though as of now the damage is more an annoyance than actual harm, experts are worried that the allowance of a satellite like this sets a future precedent for further cluttering of the night sky.
Potential Solutions to Counteract LEO Satellites
Currently, the most popular solution is international regulation, and agencies like the IAU are focusing much of their efforts on convincing the United Nations’ Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to stricten their stance on the issue. Though much progress was made in meetings regarding the issue, the committee has yet to reach a consensus and won’t be meeting again until February 2024. Though this may be the best long-term solution, there’s valid concern that it won’t be solved by this avenue soon enough. On average, almost 50 satellites are launched from Earth into orbit each week.
Without regulation, the next best option is to raise awareness - to help everyone understand the potential ramifications of blocking the night sky with clusters of spacecraft operating in unison. Ironically enough, we might be able to use BlueWalker 3 and other LEO Satellites from AST SpaceMobile and other companies to spread this information to more people. But there’s power in the collective consciousness that is the internet - the issues that the global populace cares about are the issues that drive elections and inspire technological innovations.
For the rest of our lives, both yours and mine, there may potentially be an unprecedented alteration in the night sky, forever changing what we see as we look up at night. But, if we advocate for regulation, and socially support the companies and bodies seeking to make ethical improvements to satellite technology, there’s a chance we can conserve our resplendent view of the heavens beyond our little planet. There’s power in where the general public collectively gazes. Keep looking up.