Falcons Protect This Deep Space Antenna

Nesting birds and their droppings can keep space scientists’ telescopes from getting a clear signal

Cebreros station
Cebreros station ESA

Researchers that peer into the depths of space need really big instruments. The ground-based telescopes and antennae tower over the trees and make a safe and attractive nesting spot for birds. But their poop isn't great for signal reception. 

Since the antennae aren't exactly easy to clean, the European Space Agency (ESA) has hired a new winged guard—falcons, reports Emiko Jozuka for Motherboard

The Cebreros station, about 50 miles west of Madrid, Spain, is one of several antennae scientists use to transmit and receive messages from missions to deep space, like the Rosetta probe that recently had a rendezvous with a comet. It’s also located in the middle of a wildlife refugee.

“The antenna is like a five star hotel to the birds in the area. It’s very high up and they feel protected and safe there," falcon trainer Antonio Rubio Botello tells Jozuka. 

Botello and his birds have been working with the ESA since 2006 to scare away would-be nesters. Bringing in cleaning crews can be expensive and time consuming, and the falcons work better than falcon simulation noises or even drones (at least, until drones become more convincing as falcons). Botello visits the station twice a week in the evenings with his falcon guards.

Birds and their droppings aren’t a new problem for telescope operators. In 1964, scientists removed pigeons from the telescope they were working with to try and eliminate the source of a strange hissing sound. That particular noise turned out to be the echoes of the Big Bang, but bird poop remains a prime suspect when telescopes pick up something odd.

Falcons work well enough that falconers and their birds have swooped to the rescue in other situations were unwanted birds were causing trouble. New York City’s John F. Kennedy J. International Airport employed falcons and falconers for 15 years to deter local birds from a nearby sanctuary and cut down on plane-bird strikes, reports Barry Newman for The Wall Street Journal. However, budget cuts put an end to the program in 2011.

For the ESA, this joining of medieval practices and cutting-edge space science still flies high.

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