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More satellites in space ‘streak,’ mar telescope images

PanSTARRS faces issues with Elon Musk’s Starlink

The dome of the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (left) towers over the domes of Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (PanSTARRS) 1 and 2 at the summit of Haleakala on Wednesday afternoon. The Inouye telescope is scheduled to begin operations in 2020, according to a May article at astronomy.com. PanSTARRS, which identified the first interstellar object ‘Oumuamua, is facing challenges as more satellites are put into orbit, such as the 60 satellites from Starlink in late May. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Images from the wide field view telescope atop Haleakala that discovered the first interstellar object, ‘Oumuamua, could face more “streaks” and damage from the thousands of Starlink telecommunications satellites, the first 60 of which were launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX in late May.

“This is going to hurt us perhaps more than” other survey telescopes, said astronomer Richard Wainscoat with the UH Institute for Astronomy on Thursday, about the launch of the satellites, the first of 12,000 to be put into orbit by Starlink. The satellites will connect the globe to the internet.

Rather than focusing on single objects, the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, or Pan-STARRS 1, captures 1,000 square degrees of the sky each night, taking four shots of 200 places, Wainscoat said. Its 1.8-meter-diameter telescope with 1.4 billion pixel camera scans the sky for near-Earth and moving objects in space.

The process of identifying a near-Earth object involves observing the object in three of the four shots in the area images, Wainscoat said.

When a satellite passes through the area, it “will make a streak through our field of view and ruin anything under the streak,” he explained. “If there is a bright satellite going across the image, you can’t see under the light.”

This image from PanSTARRS 1 taken June 1 includes three white lines. They represent three separate satellites. -- PanSTARRS photo

The problem arises one to two hours during twilight after the sun sets and before it rises when the skies are dark to the eye, he said. During those periods, satellites are “lit up” by the sun’s light.

And at 311 miles above the Earth, Starlink satellites are going to be visible a little bit longer than objects, like the Space Station, closer to Earth,” Wainscoat said. The International Space Station orbits at 220 miles above the Earth.

“We see satellites already. They are already a nuisance,” he said.

“Some nights are worse than others,” he added, noting that a lot depends on where astronomers are looking.

According to the Index of Objects Launched into Outer Space maintained by the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, there were 4,857 satellites orbiting the planet in 2018, up 5 percent from the pervious year.

In a review of recent surveys, Wainscoat noted satellite streaks at 8:15 p.m. June 2 and 4:37 a.m. June 3.

When studying ‘Oumuamua during a six-hour period one night, satellites appeared in three of 104 images — with one damaged, he said. The interstellar object ‘Oumuamua was discovered Oct. 19, 2017, by Pan-STARRS1 as the object approached close to Earth’s orbit.

Compensating for the ever-increasing presence of satellites would involve spending more money on cameras and telescopes, Wainscoat said.

The technology in PanSTARRS1 is more than a decade old and a $5 million to $6 million upgrade would do the trick, he said. The money would be used to upgrade the cameras with larger detectors.

“This is our dream, but it is becoming more and more necessary when fighting off” factors such as the increased satellites, he said.

Another option would be to take more scans of the same area, say five instead of the current four, to compensate for satellite streaks, Wainscoat said. That, however, would decrease the efficiency of PanSTARRS1 by 25 percent.

“We’d cover less sky,” he said.

More telescopes and surveys also could help mitigate the satellite problem, but “none of that is cheap,” he said.

The greater number of satellites in space is part of a cumulative problem for PanSTARRS1, Wainscoat said. The telescope already is losing efficiency from lights on Maui, especially the new LED energy efficient streetlights, as well as some light pollution from Honolulu.

“We are not happy with LEDs,” said Wainscoat. “The shielding of the lights is really, really important. Most lights are supposed to be shielded but many are not. We have to convince the county to update their lighting ordinance.

“All of these little things add up to hurt us.”

* Lee Imada can be reached at leeimada@mauinews.com.