Home SCIENCE Can technology save astronomy from light pollution? | by Ethan Siegel | Starts With A Bang! | Nov, 2023

Can technology save astronomy from light pollution? | by Ethan Siegel | Starts With A Bang! | Nov, 2023


The Earth at night emits electromagnetic signals, not just of natural origin but also from human-created artificial lighting. As time has gone on, the brightness of Earth at night has increased severely, a rise that has been exacerbated by the advent of LED lighting. (Credit: NASA’s Earth Observatory/NOAA/DOD)

With LEDs bringing brighter nighttime lighting than ever before, and thousands of new satellites polluting the skies, astronomy needs help.

For nearly all of human history, once the Sun went down and the sky darkened, so long as you had a clear, moonless night, you’d be greeting with a spectacular, thrilling night sky: with thousands of stars, a clear view of the Milky Way, and several faint, fuzzy nebulae all visible to your naked eye. If each of us were to look up at a clear, moonless sky tonight, however, most of us would only see a few dozen stars, with the rest being washed out by a triumph of modern technology: nighttime lighting. Furthermore, even those of us with access to darker, more rural skies are subject to a rising type of novel light pollution: pollution from light reflected off of satellites, which continuously streak through the sky in tremendous numbers.

While this is a troubling situation that disrupts the behavior of humans and all animals, it affects astronomers more than most, as the field of astronomy relies on being very sensitive to faint objects in the night sky; more light pollution of all types, including from bright satellite streaks, means lower-quality science for all. Just as a new era of ground-based astronomy is about to open up — with the Vera Rubin Observatory, the Giant Magellan Telescope, and the European Extremely Large Telescope all nearing completion — this worsening set of problems threatens astronomy as we know it. Given that the number of satellites in low-Earth orbit is scheduled to increase even further and that nighttime skies are getting brighter at a rate of nearly 10% per year, it’s unreasonable to count on environmental regulation as a workable solution. But three plausible technological solutions might help astronomers, both amateur and professional, find a way to still explore, photograph, and understand the Universe.

This map of the world depicts light pollution as a function of geographic location. Every location with a yellow-or-brighter coloring has more brightness coming from the ground than the natural sky, highlighting the severity of light pollution across the world, particularly in Europe, Asia, and the Americas. (Credit: Falchi et al., Science Advances, including Dan Duriscoe/NPS; Bob Meadows/NPS; Jakob Grothe/NPS contractor, and Matthew Price/CIRES and CU-Boulder)

Big problem #1: light pollution

No matter where you go in the world at night, there are very few places remaining that won’t be…

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