Largest-Ever Telescope Network Greenlit Despite Concerns About Starlink Interference

The project is expected to cost $2.2B and yet, it's unclear how it will play out with upcoming satellite constellations.
Chris Young

The largest network of telescopes ever built was just given the green light for construction, despite concerns over interference from satellite constellations such as those of SpaceX's Starlink, a report by SpaceNews explains. 

The Square Kilometer Array Observatory (SKAO) will consist of two new radio telescope arrays, which will be built in Australia and South Africa following a seven-year engineering and design period.

Construction was approved by SKAO for the two telescope arrays, designated SKA-Low in Australia and SKA-Mid in South Africa to refer to the radio frequency range each network will cover.

The project will cost €2 billion ($2.2 billion) and construction is estimated to last until 2028. The telescope arrays will consist of 197 dishes in South Africa, including 64 MeerKAT dishes. In Western Australia, there will be 131,072 antennas. 

In a press statement, SKAO refers to the two networks as "the two largest and most complex networks of radio telescopes ever built."

Starlink constellation interference 'changes the game'

The SKAO project is a global effort, as the infrastructure for the telescopes was built by over 500 experts from 20 different countries.

"I am ecstatic. This moment has been 30 years in the making," said SKAO Director-General Prof. Philip Diamond.

"Today, humankind is taking another giant leap by committing to build what will be the largest science facility of its kind on the planet; not just one but the two largest and most complex radio telescope networks, designed to unlock some of the most fascinating secrets of our Universe."

The telescopes will enable the global scientific community to gain a better understanding of dark matter, pulsars, and a host of other cosmic phenomena. However, recent satellite developments pose a challenge for the new network.

As SpaceNews points out, Diamond told journalists in a press briefing on June 29 that "we radio astronomers have been used to dealing with the interference from satellites and aircraft systems. What the megaconstellations do is that they change the game for us."

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SpaceX's Starlink project, for example, still aims to send thousands more satellites into orbit, to provide global wifi coverage. The issue is that many of these will operate on frequencies that SKA-Mid is tuned to observe.

However, Diamonds says that SKA is in technical discussions with satellite operators on methods they can use to "significantly limit the impact on the SKA telescopes" — though he didn't elaborate any further.

Another telescope that won't have the same problem is the much-delayed James Webb Telescope, which will be sent 932 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from Earth, far from any orbital satellite interference. The SKA Observatory is one of many projects that will help to reveal the secrets of the cosmos over the coming years.

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