After deploying its massive network, the commercial satellite becomes as bright as the stars of Orion

After deploying its massive network, the commercial satellite becomes as bright as the stars of Orion

The BlueWalker 3 satellite deployed the largest commercial communications network in low Earth orbit.
GIF: AST SpaceMobile/Gizmodo

Since his launch in september, the BlueWalker 3 satellite had anxious observers watching the skies ahead of its full deployment. Now the prototype satellite has completely stretched its massive antenna array, greatly increasing its brightness and posing a threat to astronomers’ views of the cosmos.

Monday, AST SpaceMobile announcement the full deployment of its test satellite’s communications network, deploying its 693-square-foot (64-square-meter) antenna array into low Earth orbit. The antenna array is the largest-still a commercial communications network deployed in low Earth orbit, designed to deliver connectivity directly to people’s phones.

The Texas-based company brags about the size of its satellite, with AST SpaceMobile President and CEO Abel Avellan to boast on Twitter, “Made in TX—size matters!” referring to BlueWalker 3. But for astronomers collecting data from the sky, it’s nothing to brag about. With its antenna fully extended, the satellite may be among the brightest objects of the night sky, according to Sky and Telescope.

Marco Langbroek, professor of astrodynamics at the Technical University of Delft in the Netherlands, has followed BlueWalker 3 since its launch. During aerial observations in September, the satellite had a brightness magnitude of about +3.5, which made it visible to the naked eye but not very bright. However, since the satellite deployed its antenna array, it has become noticeably brighter.

“Several early reports from other past day observers indicate significant brightening of approximately 2 magnitudes,” Langbroek told Gizmodo in an email. “It’s about 6 times brighter than before, because a difference in magnitude equals a factor of 2.512 in brightness.”

“A report during a very favorable zenith pass indicated a peak luminosity of magnitude +2 to +1, i.e. about as bright as the stars of Orion,” he said. added. Langbroek predicts that the satellite could get even brighter because it only recently began to deploy, and visibility in the northern hemisphere at the moment isn’t ideal for astronomers to observe the satellite’s brightness.

Astronomers have expressed concern that the satellite could interfere with observations, appearing as a bright streak of light in telescope images and saturating detectors at observatories.

NSF’s NOIRLab and the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference called on astronomers around the world to observe the satellite and note its brightness magnitude as it orbits the Earth. “[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 the visible-light counterparts of short-lived gravitational-wave sources,” NSF wrote in a report.

On its own, BlueWalker 3 is large enough to disrupt observations of the cosmos. However, the prototype satellite is only a test to build an entire constellation of over 100 satellites. AST SpaceMobile aims to create the first and only space-based broadband cellular network directly accessible by cellphones, sending more of its satellites into orbit by the end of 2024.

Low Earth orbit is already filling up with commercial satellites. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is build an internet constellation in low earth orbit with plans to deploy over 42,000 satellites. Amazon is also plans to launch a fleet of 3,236 satellites to Kuiper Projectwhile OneWeb wants to launch 648 satellites.

After: Unique Constellation Will Launch Navigation Satellites Into Low Earth Orbit

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