In what may be the most surprising news this week, NASA is launching a new mission that is bound to upset skywatchers and astronomers alike. It's a peculiar yet cool one.
The mission an Arizona State University-designed CubeSat, named LightCube, that is about the size of a toaster and, once deployed to low-Earth orbit (LEO), will be commanded by anyone with an amateur radio license and a ham radio to set off a xenon flash that will be visible from the ground. It will be launched into space between 2022 and 2025 among 14 other small research satellites,
“The public will be able to track the LightCube satellite using an app, then transmit to the satellite with a ham radio. Once the signal has been received, they will see a flash from the satellite in the night sky,” said in a press release Principal Investigator Jaime Sanchez de la Vega, of Vega Space Systems.
Sounds exciting and fun right? The only problem is it will result in more light pollution in a sky already burdened by countless satellites. Ethan Siegel, writing for Forbes, states that the new LightCube will be "the brightest artificial light pollution point source in history."
If this seems worrisome, it's because it is. Astronomers rely on dark still skies to make the many discoveries that bring our knowledge of space forward and also lead to many new revelations of how our own planet came to be. These skies are already perturbed by the many satellites now in orbit.
That's why it's a bit odd to see NASA supporting a project that would hinder the astronomers' work. The mission, however, does have a noble cause.
“This is an education-based mission,” said Danny Jacobs, the initiative’s associate director for laboratories who is also an assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration.
“Our goal in building and launching a spacecraft that can be commanded by the public is to inspire everyone to learn about telecommunications, spacecraft design, atmospheric and climate science, and orbital mechanics.”