SpaceX rocket launches the largest commercial satellite into orbit. It could also blind our view of the universe

The BlueWalker 3 prototype satellite is extremely bright and could interfere with celestial data.
Deena Theresa
An artist's illustration of AST SpaceMobile's BlueWalker 3 mobile phone service satellite in orbit.
An artist's illustration of AST SpaceMobile's BlueWalker 3 mobile phone service satellite in orbit.

Nokia/AST SpaceMobile 

The brightest star in the sky may not be a star for much longer. It could be a colossal internet satellite featuring a giant antenna array covering an area of 689 square feet (64 square meters) for regular cellphones to access the internet from space.

No, we're not making this up.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched the BlueWalker 3 satellite — the largest commercial communications array ever flown in space built by Texas-based firm AST SpaceMobile —to ride low into Earth orbit over the weekend.

Sure, it set SpaceX history —it was a record-breaking 14th landing for the booster. Space.com reported that about 8.5 minutes after launching the BlueWalker 3 and Starlink satellites, the first stage of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket returned to Earth for a pinpoint landing on the company's drone ship A Shortfall of Gravitas in the Atlantic Ocean.

It was also SpaceX's first five-engine-burn mission to deploy payloads in orbit, as well as the company's heaviest (BlueWalker 3 weighs 3,300 pounds (1,500 kilograms)) rideshare payload ever.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk even tweeted that the flight was one of their "most complex" missions.

Now, as the structure points towards Earth, its giant phased array antenna will reflect sunlight to Earth, causing bright, blinding steaks across astronomical images and interfering with scientific data, worrying astronomers.

It only gets worse.

SpaceX rocket launches the largest commercial satellite into orbit. It could also blind our view of the universe
The BlueWalker 3 satellite is seen deployed on Earth.

These satellites do not need a cell tower

BlueWalker 3 is just a curtain raiser. After on-orbit tests of BlueWalker 3 are completed, the company could send more than 100 of its satellites to orbit by the end of 2024. Called BlueBirds, the operational satellites are likely to produce even more blazing light pollution and interference with celestial observations as they are significantly larger.

It could invade space, blinding our only view of the cosmos.

But, the commercial appeal of these satellites is that they will link directly to cell phones without the need for a cell tower, reported SkyandTelescope. Unlike SpaceX's own Starlink internet satellites, BlueWalker 3 will not require users to install a dish and a space router on the ground to access the web. According to AST, this will be the "first and only global cellular broadband network in space to operate directly with standard, unmodified mobile devices” based on its “extensive IP and patent portfolio."

"The reason why our satellite is large is because in order to communicate with a low-power, low internal strength phone, you just need a large antenna on one side with a lot of power, and so that's a critical part of our infrastructure," AST SpaceMobile Chief Strategy Officer Scott Wisniewski told Space.com in an interview. "We think that's really important for communicating directly with regulars handsets, with no change to the handset, with no extra burdens on the user."

All you have to do is sign up for the service, and you will have access to the internet anywhere there’s coverage using any 4G or 5G phone.

Impressive connectivity, but at what cost?

It definitely sounds great. But surely we can do this without ruining what belongs to everyone?

SpaceX has been in talks with the International Astronomical Union to figure out ways to dim the brightness of their satellites lest they interfere with images of the cosmos.

And the National Science Foundation's NOIRLab and the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Centre for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference have called on astronomers from around the world to take brightness observations of the satellite once it’s in orbit. In a report, NSF wrote: "[Low Earth orbit satellites] disproportionately affect science programs that require twilight observations, such as searches for Earth-threatening asteroids and comets, outer Solar System objects, and visible-light counterparts of fleeting gravitational-wave sources."

We're in a new era in terms of connectivity, and the advancement in technology is undeniably impressive. Hopefully, it doesn't come at the price of losing valuable data about the cosmos or star gazing.

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