In the predawn hours of November 18, 2019, Northwestern University astronomer Cliff Johnson noticed a huge swarm of unfamiliar objects streaking across the sky.
That night, Johnson was surveying the Magellanic Clouds — two very dim dwarf galaxies that orbit our own Milky Way galaxy — with the telescopes at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.
These galaxies are teaching scientists how stars form, and what happens when two galaxies pass near one another. Johnson was watching them remotely, through a webcam at Fermilab outside of Chicago.
“All of a sudden,” he says, “we just start seeing these streaks come across the webcam view. I’ve never seen anything like that.” The stripes weren’t created by the sky. They were Earth natives.
A train of 19 satellites entered the telescopes’ field of view over the course of five minutes, marring the observation with bright parallel marks and lowering its scientific quality. Johnson and his coworkers quickly identified the satellites as belonging to: 60 tiny satellites had been launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX into low Earth orbit a week earlier. Clarae Martnez-Vázquez, an astronomer who was Johnson’s coworker and who was also working that night, expressed her annoyance on Twitter.
Satellites occasionally come into view one at a time, which is common knowledge among astronomers. They don’t necessarily ruin observations. To digitally remove them from the finished photograph, however, does need some work.
19 satellites, though? According to Johnson, that was unprecedented and caused 15 to 20 percent of the image to be “totally destroyed.”
The Swarm Of Satellite Concern.
Johnson is also concerned that the swarm was a portent of a time when satellite streaks will interfere with nearly every telescope observation made at dusk.
Tens of thousands of satellites may soon cover the entire planet, much outnumbering the 9,000 stars that are currently visible to the unaided human eye.
There is no impending danger here. It has already begun. These little satellites, collectively known as Starlink, have already been launched into space by SpaceX. This week saw the launch of sixty. There will be more launches after that, potentially every two weeks.
The Starlink Satellites
Musk is requesting permission to launch 30,000 more satellites, bringing the total number of satellites the company has received from the Federal Communications Commission’s approval to 12,000 satellites.
With the help of a constellation of Starlink satellites, SpaceX hopes to offer internet service to off-the-grid regions of the planet for a fee.
And there are numerous other businesses in this industry. OneWeb, a startup located in the UK that also aims to provide internet connectivity from space, plans to launch 650 satellites starting in January. Amazon plans to launch 3,200 satellites in the Kuiper constellation with the aim of selling internet access.
How Many Satellites Are Presumed To Orbit Our Planet?
The number of tiny satellites orbiting the Earth in the near future may reach 50,000 or more, and they won’t all be used for internet service. Could a corporation set up a constellation of brilliant satellites to spell out the name of a well-known soda? Maybe. Advertising in space is not outlawed globally.
To ensure that the internet connection they offer is swift, these new satellites are compact, mass-produced, and in very close orbit to the planet. But this proximity also makes
However, because of their proximity, they are also more visible and brighter in the night sky. Patrick Seitzer, an astronomer at the University of Michigan who studies orbital trash, says that satellites launched by SpaceX and others will be brighter than 99 percent of the population of objects of all types currently in Earth orbit.
According to him, Starlinks are more brilliant than other satellites in the same orbital altitude. “Therefore, it has something to do with the Starlinks’ attitude [i.e., orientation] and design.”
How Will This Affect Humans On Earth?
Long-term effects include a reduction in our understanding of the universe, an increase in space debris, and possibly a loss of humanity’s ability to observe the night sky without interference. According to Johnson, the 19 Starlink satellites did not completely sabotage the observational night. “The worry is that this will turn into the new norm. That is no longer a modest concern if we’re actually talking about tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of satellites.
Additionally, some people worry that it might already be too late to take action.
What the night sky might look like in the future
It is essential to launch so many satellites to close the connectivity gap.
The most remote regions of the world, which are frequently very impoverished, will be able to access the internet and, consequently, the global economy thanks to Starlink and its rivals. That is innovative. The global community will be more interconnected than ever.
The systems might be helpful in the event of a natural disaster. Rescue teams will still have access to space-based internet even if a cyclone destroys the ground’s communications infrastructure.
But there is a price to pay.
Many of these satellites, according to estimations made by astronomers, will be visible to the unaided eye, especially during the period between dusk and dawn, when they will be most powerfully illuminated by the sun.
According to Tony Tyson, an astronomer and physicist at the University of California Davis, when there are 50,000 satellites in the sky, “you’ll see the sky crawling.” “Something will be creeping in every square degree.”
When the Starlink satellites initially launch, when they are closer to the Earth and are in close orbit to one another, they are most easily seen. Therefore, following each launch, what Johnson saw through his webcam view—the train of satellites going by in quick succession—will occur again.
The satellites will eventually spread apart from one another and ascend to higher orbits, where they will be marginally less noticeable.
According to Tyson, they will still be “visible by dark-adapted eyes in gloomy locales” at dusk when they reach their final orbits (after sunset and before sunrise). However, depending on your latitude and the season, “twilight can endure much of the night,” he claims. In addition, many space objects can only be seen in the twilight, especially asteroids that are traveling in the direction of the sun.
What Is Light Pollution?
The issue of light pollution could be well known to you. City lights create a luminous haze that blocks out all but the brightest stars, making it difficult for most residents of urban areas to see many stars. However, there is no light pollution due to the satellites. It resembles the sky more.
Their efforts are appreciated, according to Beasley, who believes that SpaceX is “creating a very positive precedent” by attempting to act morally. The interference with the Vera Rubin Observatory is a problem, and Tyson thinks SpaceX is “dedicated to correcting the problem.”
SpaceX used a black coating on one of their satellites’ undersides during a previous launch to determine if it would make the satellite less visible to observatories. But there is no assurance that it will. The business also keeps launching new, unchanged brilliant satellites into orbit.
Meanwhile, astronomers lack a formalized right to an unimpeded view of the night sky and a venue to air their grievances. I questioned Tyson about astronomers’ ability to defend their viewpoint on the night sky. We are obviously helpless, he declares.
The astronomer from UT Austin, Casey, wants everyone to be aware that altering the night sky takes away “the one thing that all people have enjoyed in the past 200,000, millions of years, it’s always been there.” That should not be taken lightly.
She explains that she became fascinated by science and decided to pursue it as a career after watching the night sky as a young child. “Astronomy is a special branch of science since we are unable to conduct experiments on stars in a laboratory. It would be awful to lose the way that science looks up at the sky.