SpaceX satellites fill Nevada’s night sky with mega-constellations


If you’ve recently looked up at the night sky, you may have seen a string of lights shining.

While these may be an unidentified object for many people, they are part of Elon Musk’s goal of a universal internet.

These SpaceX satellites, known as Starlinks, are often as bright as an airplane and travel in packs of up to 60 satellites. They orbit the earth at one of the lowest altitudes allowed for spacecraft, about 186 miles above the earth’s surface and up to almost 342 miles high.

Currently, there are approximately 1,800 Starlink satellites in orbit. SpaceX has requested to place more than 30,000 satellites in orbit to provide high-speed wireless Internet connection.

For scale, there are currently around 4,300 active satellites orbiting the planet and historically only 11,670 have been placed in orbit since the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. According to SpaceNews.com, SpaceX began placing Starlink satellites in orbit in May 2019.

When we contacted SpaceX for more information, they said no one was available for an interview.

“100,000 functional satellites orbiting the earth”

“Starlink is just one representative of a whole new class of what are known as satellite mega-constellations,” said Dr John Barentine, director of conservation at the International Starry Sky Association. These mega-constellations are a group of satellites that fly together in a sort of formation.

While global positioning systems are based on the same idea of ​​satellite formations, there are only a few dozen of these satellites, while SpaceX plans to launch thousands and possibly tens of thousands over the course of the years. next ten years. Barentine said there are other companies here in the United States and around the world who are interested in building mega-constellation satellite systems aimed at providing high-speed wireless internet, including Amazon.

“By the end of this decade, there could be in the order of 100,000 functional satellites orbiting the earth and that is more than ten times more than today,” Barentine said.

“Loss of opportunity”

Many astronomers and astrophotographers have expressed concern about the impact of these satellites on the dark night sky.

Barentine, holder of a doctorate. in astronomy, explained that many astronomers are concerned about the potential loss of scientific data due to interference with photographic equipment. He explained that equipment used to photograph sensitive astronomical features, such as gamma-ray bursts, which last only a few seconds, could be impacted by light from a Starlink satellite.

Many of the things astronomers try to document and study so rarely happen with much planning. Any tiny point of light passing through the camera’s sensor could erase what researchers are trying to see. With more and more satellites projected into orbit around the Earth, there will be fewer opportunities to study rare astronomical events.

Another effect, recently established in an article published in april and co-authored by Barentine, examined the global impact of light from Starlink satellites. These satellites increase the overall brightness of the night sky by projecting light that would otherwise only pass through the earth, toward the surface, adding to a “diffuse glow across the sky,” Baretine said.

“I thought it was breathtaking, but once it soaks in it’s a bit heartbreaking,” said Kurt Kuznicki, associate director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness and local landscape photographer. Kuznicki has a long history of making images of the night sky and what he calls “ancient light”.

He fears that these satellites will remove the wilderness from the dark skies. With Nevada and the American West teeming with great outdoors and public land, Kuznicki said it was difficult to find an area without jet traffic and “even harder to find quality dark skies.”

“We are fundamentally in another era”

Barentine has noticed an increase in satellites over the past two years. Every time he pulls out his telescope, he says he can find a moving object in almost any field of view after just a few minutes.

He explained that SpaceX has taken steps to mitigate this new form of light pollution. Efforts have been put in place by SpaceX, according to Barentine, to reduce light pollution emitted by satellites. He said they started darkening the surfaces of the equipment and installing umbrellas. He also said that SpaceX engineers asked the satellites to perform a complex rolling maneuver to adjust the alignment of the satellites to the sun and the Earth’s surface; the goal being to reflect less light towards the surface of the earth.

Kuznicki plans to do his research and learn when the satellites came out and work around them while photographing the dark sky. While there are several apps that photographers and astronomers can use to plan their stargazing and photography, Stellarium is a free program available for most browsers and is a great tool for virtually viewing the night sky.

As warmer summer nights approach, stargazing is a perfect excuse to get out. Planning a stargazing night can lead to great success. This website predicts when a Starlink mega-constellation will pass a given location.

For more information on the International Dark-Sky Association, visit http://www.darksky.org.


About Hannah Schaeffer

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