Pollution is endangering the future of astronomy


night sky panorama
SKY GLOW This panoramic view of the night sky from Meteor Crater in Arizona shows how light from Winslow, Phoenix and Flagstaff (left to right, starting at 90°) makes it harder to see the stars.

OXON HILL, Md. — Even as technological advances allow astronomers to peer more deeply into the cosmos than ever before, new technologies also have the potential to create blinding pollution.

Three sources of pollution — space debris, radio interference and light pollution — already are particularly worrisome. And the situation is getting worse. In the next two decades, as many as 20,000 satellites could be launched into low Earth orbit, LEDs will become the dominant source of artificial light, and fifth-generation mobile networks will fill radio frequencies, speakers warned during the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society. These sources of pollution could prevent astronomers from getting a clear look at the night sky, limiting the sensitivity and accuracy of their measurements.

Space debris is perhaps the most nascent form of human pollution. But only six decades after Sputnik’s launch into pristine skies, the orbit around Earth is now filled with nearly 18,000 objects tracked by the United States Strategic Command. These objects range in size from about centimeter-long chunks of material to bus-sized satellites. Space debris can both damage existing space telescopes and reflect light, potentially confusing terrestrial telescopes. From Earth, a glint of light could be a distant star or just a hunk of metal.

“The worst is yet to come,” said Patrick Seitzer, an astronomer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “We’re going to double our catalog [of debris] over the next 20 years.” Aerospace company Boeing, for instance, has proposed launching a global network of nearly 3,000 satellites. Collisions between any…


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