Satellite Mega Constellation could end up doing more harm than good


According to Square Kilometer Array (SKA), the satellite mega-constellations may compromise its project. It aims to create one of the most extensive telescope facilities that would help study the universe by linking radio antennas. The linkage would cut across Australia and South Africa. 

Ever since the 1990s, SKA Organization (SKAO) has been overseeing the international SKA. It is an international organization that involves 15 countries. It also has three pathfinder facilities: the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA), Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, and the MeerKAT array. The concern is the effect that the many telecommunications spacecraft would have on its telescope. There are high chances of them causing radio interference as they fly overhead. The concern comes when the likes of OneWeb and SpaceX are working hard to send satellites. Their constellations are already large, but the companies still feel that it is not yet over. 

The SKAO has a recommendation it thinks will mitigate the repercussions. It proposes that there is a need for the satellite owners to converse with the radio astronomy community. Otherwise, interference with the antennas, both Australian and South African, may become inevitable. Some scientists have concluded that sky images’ streaks are often a result of the brightness emanating from various spacecraft. However, this is not SKA’s concern. It is only worried an interference might arise between SKA’s signals and the downlink communications from the satellites.

There is a possibility of physical damage to the Band 5B receivers that SKA uses. After all. Satellites emit strong radio signals strong enough to cause damage once they illuminate the dishes directly. Lost data is another challenge. Saturation of strong interfering signals could make it impossible for band 5b receivers to get any signal. Consequently, the receiver becomes useless until there is no more saturation. The fact that the number of satellites keeps increasing means that the probability of saturation also increases.

The bottom line is that things could change for the worst for the SKA. Since the radio telescopes’ existence, they have been operating on the same frequency ranges as the satellites. As much as there has been Radio Frequency Interference, it has been manageable. After all, the satellites are minimal. Equally important, they are at a fixed position in the Earth’s geostationary orbit (GSO). However, once we are dealing with a mega constellation, that hope may be lost for good.

At the moment, there are around 2,787 satellites. While the targets are 6,400, the worry is the 100,000 targets in the future. That would mean that the proposed SKA-Mid telescope will be a project dead on arrival. It brings a debate before the physical damage, instrument saturation, and scientific impact become a reality. Whether that happens and what comes out of it, if it happens, is a matter of wait and see.