Home » This Device Can Help Astronomers Tackle Satellite Flares In The Sky To Get Clear Stellar Images

This Device Can Help Astronomers Tackle Satellite Flares In The Sky To Get Clear Stellar Images

by Coffee Table Science
Satellites have become common in space, especially in the lower and medium earth orbit. As their number has been increasing, a clearer view of the night sky is difficult to expect from an astronomical research point of view. To solve this problem, a team of students and faculty members at the University of Arizona (UArizona), U.S., have developed an instrument that can characterise and track flares from satellites through a land-based sensor to measure the speed, trajectory and brightness of satellites while travelling in the orbit. The obtained data could notify astronomers about the incoming satellites so they can prevent their astronomical images from being deteriorated due to satellite light trails by closing the camera shutters mounted on the telescopes. 


Image Credits: University of Arizona


The science behind satellites’ brightness


Satellites reflect light from the sun to earth while moving in the sky. This makes them appear bright and shiny. However, the problem is that they need power from solar panels, which reflects sunlight to ground-based astronomical telescopes, which can hamper space observations. Further, they become more reflective after launch until they are positioned in the lower orbit and clustered. As they disperse in the sky or move in higher orbits, they become faint, and their brightness reduces. 


As more and more space agencies are joining the race to launch maximum satellites, the “space traffic jam” or space junk is also increasing, which can impact future stellar research and observations. 


A way to comprehensive astronomical research


As satellite light trails are one of the major concerns for astronomers, the research team made a satellite tracking device to monitor the path and brightness of Starlink satellites, the largest satellite network operated by SpaceX. The team then compared the received data to government satellite tracking data from the Space Track Catalogue database, an American platform promoting space flight safety and space environment protection. The team made calculations for 61 Starlink satellites for two years and discovered that the actual positions of these satellites recorded in the Space track catalogue database differ by 0.3 arc seconds from their (UArizona team’s) calculations. In the sky, one arc second implies a distance of 30 metres. 


Image Credits: Pixabay


“The tiny difference is probably due to natural lag times in the government data,” said Dr Vishnu Reddy, professor of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona. “Because that data is based on estimated orbits calculated days earlier, rather than on real-time observations, positioning errors can build up.” 

This device can bring hope to astronomers to perform uninterrupted research amidst increasing satellite numbers in the sky, added Reddy. 

The next target


SpaceX has announced new methods like using dark materials and installing mirrors in such a way that can reflect light away from earth to dim or darken Starlink satellites. The team plans to study these modified satellites to know how these methods can decrease reflections on the planet. Knowing the exact satellite positions can help astronomers manage research costs by securing stellar images from damage by shutting telescope cameras. 


The study findings were published in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 

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