A sprawling new satellite built to connect directly to cellphones on the surface is among the 20 brightest objects in the night sky, according to astronomers, who say it poses a threat to their work and humanity’s view of the universe.
The interfering orbital object is AST SpaceMobile’s Bluewalker 3, which was launched on Sep 10, but its 64-square-meter (693-square-foot) array of solar panels and antennas did only justiceearlier this month.
The International Astronomical Union coordinated observations around the planet that revealed the satellite is almost as bright as stars like Antares and Spica, the 15th and 16th brightest in the night sky, respectively. It’s not just Bluewalker 3 that’s keeping astronomers busy, but the fact that it’s serving as a test model for a constellation of over 100 so-called Bluebirds that the company plans to launch as part of its plan to build a network of satellites to provide 5G connectivity from space .
“BlueWalker 3 is a big shift in the constellation satellite issue and should give us every reason to pause,” Piero Benvenuti, director of the IAU Center for Protecting Dark and Quiet Skies from Satellite Constellation Disruption, said in a statement.
Astronomers have been more concerned about the potential impact of mega-constellations of thousands of satellites like SpaceX’s Starlink, but the IAU says AST SpaceMobile’s plans raise new problems because they will transmit powerful radio waves that could disrupt astronomical observations.
Philip Diamond, who directs the Square Kilometer Array Observatory in South Africa and Australia, worries that orbiting “cell towers” aren’t subject to the same “quiet zone” restrictions that protect radio astronomers from interference from terrestrial cellphone networks.
“Astronomers build radio telescopes as far away from human activity as possible and look for places on the planet where there is limited or no cell phone coverage,” Diamond said. “New satellites like BlueWalker 3 have the potential to make this situation worse and jeopardize our ability to do science if not properly mitigated.”
The IAU notes that it has already started discussions with AST SpaceMobile about possible mitigation measures.
The company did not immediately provide a response or comment.
Abel Avellan, CEO of AST SpaceMobile, said in a statement earlier this month the goal is to build a constellation that will eliminate mobile dead zones on Earth.
“Everyone should have the right to access mobile broadband, regardless of where they live or work. Our goal is to close the connectivity gaps that are negatively impacting billions of lives around the world.”