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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Astronomers are worried the influx of new satellites in the coming years could impede the hunt for asteroids near Earth.

What's happening: Companies like SpaceX and Amazon are planning to launch thousands of internet-beaming satellites to low orbits. The new spacecraft are already changing the night sky — SpaceX's Starlink satellites can be seen shooting across astronomers' images.

Why it matters: Scientists have spotted most of the largest known asteroids near our planet, but there are still thousands of smaller, possibly dangerous ones they've yet to find.

  • The rise of mega-constellations could make the hunt for those asteroids harder — and costlier — in the future, some experts warn.
  • Asteroid hunters already have to contend with satellites in orbit, but in the future, they may need to find new ways to account for the satellites streaking through images, including developing new and possibly expensive software, European Space Agency astronomer Rüdiger Jehn told Axios.

How it works: Ground-based telescopes hunt for asteroids by taking photos of the sky over the course of a night in order to pick out faint asteroids near Earth.

  • Some telescopes make use of the time right after sundown and right before sunrise in order to best spot near-Earth asteroids, but that's also the same time when satellites are most visible, with sunlight glinting off of them.

The big picture: For decades, radio astronomers have had to contend with radio signals emitted by satellites, but astronomers working with visible light haven't necessarily had to worry too much about satellites.

  • Some researchers now think it might be too late to exert much influence over how these mega-constellations are designed and how they affect astronomy.
  • "The astronomy community dropped the ball," astronomer Jonathan McDowell told Axios. "We should have been on this 10 years ago and we didn't see it coming."

Yes, but: Companies responsible for these satellites say they want to be sure to protect astronomers' view of the night sky even with thousands of new spacecraft up in orbit.

What's next: If these mega-constellations do interfere with ground-based asteroid detection, it places more importance on launching a space-based asteroid-detecting telescope, experts say.

  • A system able to hunt for asteroids from space would not have to contend with the streaking satellites above Earth.
  • However, ground-based and space-based telescopes complement one another, further emphasizing the need to protect observatories on the ground as well, experts say.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai detained on fraud charge

An activist holds a placard highlighting China's Tiananmen Square massacre as pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai arrives at West Kowloon Magistrates' Court in Hong Kong in November. Photo: Isaac Wong/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai is being detained until an April court hearing after the pro-democracy supporter was charged Thursday with fraud, per his Apple Daily news outlet.

Why it matters: The 72-year-old's arrest and denial of bail is another blow for the pro-democracy movement in the former British colony amid concerns about a fresh crackdown on activists.

5 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Inhofe loudly sets Trump straight on defense bill

Sen. Jim Inhofe speaks with reporters in the Capitol last month. Photo: Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Senator Jim Inhofe told President Trump today he'll likely fail to get two big wishes in pending defense spending legislation, bellowing into his cellphone: "This is the only chance to get our bill passed," a source who overheard part of their conversation tells Axios.

Why it matters: Republicans are ready to test whether Trump's threats of vetoing the bill, which has passed every year for more than half a century, are empty.

Conspiracy theories blow back on Trump's White House

Sidney Powell. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

President Trump has rarely met a conspiracy theory he doesn't like, but he and other Republicans now worry the wild tales told by lawyers Sidney Powell and Lin Wood may cost them in Georgia's Senate special elections.

Why it matters: The two are telling Georgians not to vote for Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler because of a bizarre, baseless and potentially self-defeating theory: It's not worth voting because the Chinese Communist Party has rigged the voting machines.

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