If you have looked up at the night sky lately, you may have seen a string of lights blazing by.
While these may be an unidentified object to a lot of people, they are part of Elon Musk’s goal of 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 elevations allowed for spacecraft, around 186 miles above earth’s surface and up to almost 342 miles high.
Currently, there are about 1,800 Starlink satellites in orbit. SpaceX has applied to place upwards of 30,000 satellites in orbit to provide high-speed wireless internet.
For scale, currently there are about 4,300 active satellites orbiting the planet and historically, only 11,670 ever placed into orbit since the launch of the first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. According to SpaceNews.com, SpaceX began placing Starlink satellites in orbit in May of 2019.
When we reached out to SpaceX for more information, they said no one was available for an interview.
‘100,000 functional satellites in orbit around the earth’
“Starlink is just one representative of a whole new class of what are being called satellite mega-constellations,” said Dr. John Barentine, the director of conservation of the International Dark-Sky Association. These mega-constellations are a group of satellites that fly together in some sort of formation.
While Global Positioning Systems rely on the same idea of satellite formations, there are only a few dozen of these satellites, whereas SpaceX plans to launch thousands and possibly tens of thousands over the next ten years. Barentine said there are other companies both here in the United States and globally that want to build satellite mega-constellation systems aimed at providing high-speed wireless internet, including Amazon.
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“By the end of this decade there could be on the order of 100,000 functional satellites in orbit around the earth and that is more than a ten times increase in what there is now,” said Barentine.
‘Loss of opportunity’
Many astronomers and astrophotographers have expressed concern over the impact these satellites have on the darkness of the night sky.
Barentine, who holds a Ph.D. in astronomy, explained many astronomers are concerned about the potential loss of scientific data due to interference with photography equipment. He explained equipment used to photograph sensitive astronomical features – such as gamma-ray bursts, which only last a few seconds – could be impacted by light from a Starlink satellite.
Many things astronomers try to document and study happen so infrequently with a lot of planning. Any small dot of light traveling across the camera’s sensor could obliterate what researchers are trying to see. With more and more satellites projected to orbit the earth, there will be fewer opportunities to study rare astronomical events.
Another effect, recently established in a paper published in April and co-authored by Barentine, looked at the overall impact of the light from the Starlink satellites. These satellites increase the overall brightness of the night sky by shining light, which otherwise would just pass by earth, down towards the surface, adding up to a “diffused glow across the sky,” Baretine said.
“I thought it was breathtaking to see, but once it soaks in, it is kind of a little bit heartbreaking,” said Kurt Kuznicki, the associate director of Friends of Nevada Wilderness and a local landscape photographer. Kuznicki has long been making images of the night sky and what he calls the “ancient light.”
He is concerned these satellites will take away from the wildness of the dark skies. While Nevada and the American west are filled with wide-open spaces and public lands, Kuznicki said it is hard to find an area without jet traffic and “even harder to find quality dark skies.”
‘We are fundamentally in a different era’
Barentine has noticed an increase in satellites in the last couple of years. Whenever he takes out his telescope, he said he can find a moving object in nearly every field of view after just a few minutes.
He explained that SpaceX has taken measures to mitigate this new form of light pollution. Efforts have been put in place by SpaceX, according to Barentine, to reduce the light pollution the satellites emit. He said they have begun to darken the surfaces of the equipment and install sunshades. He also said SpaceX engineers have directed the satellites to make a complex rolling maneuver to adjust the alignment of the satellites in relation to the sun and the surface of the earth; the goal being to reflect less light back to the surface of the earth.
Kuznicki plans to do his research and learn when the satellites are out and work around them when making dark sky photography. While there are several applications photographers and stargazers can use to plan their stargazing and photography, Stellarium is a free program available for most browsers and is a great tool in virtually touring the night sky.
As warmer summer nights approach, stargazing is a perfect excuse to get outside. Planning a night of stargazing can lead to great success. This website predicts when a Starlink mega-constellation will cruise by any given location.
For more information on the International Dark-Sky Association, visit http://www.darksky.org.
Story originally published here with USA Today.