Could 5G ruin the night sky?

Scientists are warning that AST SpaceMobile's newest satellite "is now one of the brightest objects in the night sky," which could compromise astronomers' work.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

December 1, 2022

4 Min Read
Could 5G ruin the night sky?

Remember how 5G was going to give you cancer? Or potentially crash airplanes? Or how it caused COVID? Well, here's a new one: Apparently 5G might mess up astronomy by adding new stars into the night sky.

At least that's the new warning from the International Astronomical Union (IAU). The organization, which runs the Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference, this week warned that AST SpaceMobile's newest satellite, launched in September, "is now one of the brightest objects in the night sky, outshining all but the brightest stars."

Figure 1: (Source: NASA) (Source: NASA)

"The measurements show that BlueWalker 3 [AST SpaceMobile's new satellite] is around apparent visual magnitude 1 at its brightest – almost as bright as Antares or Spica (the 15th and 16th brightest stars in the night sky)," the association wrote. "Apparent magnitude in astronomy is a measure of the brightness of a star or other astronomical object as observed from Earth."

According to SKA Observatory Director-General Philip Diamond, AST SpaceMobile's satellite and others like it could "compromise our ability to do science if not properly mitigated."

Bigger is better

Satellites aren't new, of course, but those that AST SpaceMobile and other phone-to-satellite companies are planning are different because they're in low-Earth orbit (LEO) and they're big. For example, AST SpaceMobile's BlueWalker 3 satellite clocks in at 693 square feet, whereas first-generation Starlink LEO satellites from SpaceX are around 50 square feet.

The larger size is necessary to pick up customers' smartphone transmissions and weed out transmissions from other nearby phones, and potentially provide faster data connections. "Size matters!" proclaimed Abel Avellan, AST SpaceMobile CEO, in a recent LinkedIn post.

But AST SpaceMobile says it's willing to work with astronomers and others to address the situation.

"We are eager to use the newest technologies and strategies to mitigate possible impacts to astronomy. We are actively working with industry experts on the latest innovations, including next-generation anti-reflective materials," AST SpaceMobile wrote in a statement to Light Reading. "We are also engaged with NASA and certain working groups within the astronomy community to participate in advanced industry solutions, including potential operational interventions."

AST SpaceMobile added that it "is committed to avoiding broadcasts inside or adjacent to the National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ) in the US and additional radioastronomy locations that are not officially recognized, as required or needed. We also plan to place gateway antennas far away from the NRQZ and other radio-quiet zones that are important to astronomy."

The issue is critical to AST SpaceMobile because the company is working to obtain regulatory approval for an eventual constellation of 168 even larger satellites called BlueBirds. To fund its ambitions, AST SpaceMobile just this week launched a $75 million public offering, as noted by FierceWireless.

Other companies such as Starlink, Omnispace and Lynk Global are also hoping to launch satellites that will connect to regular cellphones, and many of those satellites are likely to be big. For example, at 269 square feet, Starlink's proposed second-generation, phone-capable satellites are roughly five times the size of its current satellites.

Space junk

This isn't the first time that LEO satellite operators have faced regulatory obstacles and complaints from astronomers. Starlink, for example, has been working to dim its satellites for years.

Further, the FCC appears to be gearing up to tackle the issue. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel recently proposed reorganization of the agency's International Bureau into a new Space Bureau and a standalone Office of International Affairs.

"A new Space Bureau at the FCC will ensure that the agency's resources are appropriately aligned to fulfill its statutory obligations, improve its coordination across the federal government, and support the 21st century satellite industry," she said recently.

But the FCC faces a substantial amount of work. Advisory firm Deloitte has predicted that more than 5,000 broadband satellites could be in low-Earth orbit by the end of 2023. That figure could grow to 50,000 satellites serving more than 10 million end users by 2030.

It's hard to know whether astronomers will have an impact on the 5G race to space. While the airline industry has been able to indefinitely stall the rollout of 5G near some US airports over worries that the technology will crash airplanes, grassroots campaigns centered on scientifically dubious links between 5G and cancer and 5G and COVID haven't panned out.

Related posts:

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

Subscribe and receive the latest news from the industry.
Join 62,000+ members. Yes it's completely free.

You May Also Like