AST SpaceMobile has established communications with its prototype satellite, BlueWalker 3, confirming its successful arrival in Earth orbit. The company will soon unfurl the satellite’s massive antenna array, which has astronomers worried that it could block their views of celestial objects in the sky.
BlueWalker 3 launched aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on Saturday from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Ground teams contacted the satellite less than an hour after liftoff, confirming its trajectory, the company announced on Wednesday. In a September 9 tweet, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said it was “one of our most complicated missions,” without providing any details.
The satellite successfully reached orbit and has been responding to engineers’ commands. AST SpaceMobile is planning to unfold the satellite’s 693-square-foot (64-square-meter) array of antennas in about two weeks and begin testing its ability to beam down connectivity directly to people’s phones.
AST SpaceMobile is aiming to build the first and only space-based cellular broadband network directly accessible by cell phones. The Texas-based startup has an experimental license to test voice and video applications with the prototype satellite currently in orbit. Should BlueWalker 3 succeed in its test mission, AST SpaceMobile could send more than 100 satellites, dubbed BlueBirds, to orbit by the end of 2024, in an effort to build an internet satellite constellation.
But the company’s lone satellite is already causing astronomers to fret over the effect it could have on upcoming observations of the cosmos. “Our concern in a nutshell is that the very large area of this particular satellite will reflect a lot of sunlight onto nighttime telescopes,” Richard Green, an astronomer at Steward Observatory at the University of Arizona, told Gizmodo in an email. “That puts it squarely among the 10 brightest stars in the entire sky; were it to pass through the field of view of a large-aperture telescope, it would make the data unusable.”
Should AST SpaceMobile deploy its complete fleet of 100 BlueBird satellites, that would result in more dire consequences. “With that fleet, five [BlueBirds] or so would be above the horizon of a major research telescope nearly all the time in certain seasons,” Green added. “They would need to be cleanly avoided, which is disruptive for critical observing programs such as tracking the orbits of potentially hazardous asteroids or following unusual explosive objects with transient brightness like merging neutron stars.”
AST SpaceMobile isn’t the only company that’s currently threatening to crowd Earth’s orbit. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is also building an internet constellation in low Earth orbit, with 3,023 satellites currently in orbit and with plans to deploy upwards of 42,000 satellites. Amazon is also planning to launch a fleet of 3,236 satellites for Project Kuiper, while OneWeb has already launched 428 satellites out of its intended total of 648. Earth’s orbit will not be the same once all these satellites are up there, hindering precious data about the surrounding universe.