Starlink Satellite Train Stuns Stargazers

Hawk’s cousin posted that she was amazed to see these last week (December 22, 2019) in Northern Indiana. Her local news posted pics and ran a story on it. She did not take any pictures herself.

Image may contain: night

But here’s the thing – while people were fascinated and whispers of aliens spread along with parents spinning a long yarn about Santa and his elves watching little kids, there is controversy among astronomers about these little satellites and their interference in viewing stars.

These little satellites are for internet access.

Satellites can beam internet access down to the ground from space.

And if you have lots of them in orbit, it means even the most remote regions can get connectivity.

To give you an idea of the numbers, there are currently just 2,200 active satellites flying around the Earth.

Starlink constellation – a project by US company SpaceX – will start sending batches of 60 satellites into orbit every few weeks (November was the last launch of 60). This will mean by the mid-2020s there could be a fleet of 12,000.

Here is the deployment of a batch of 60 Starlink satellites.


What’s the big deal?

Dr. Dave Clements, an astrophysicist from Imperial College London, told BBC News: “The night sky is a commons – and what we have here is a tragedy of the commons.”

In May and November, Starlink sent 120 satellites into orbits below 500km.

But stargazers were concerned when the spacecraft appeared as bright white flashes on their images.

Dhara Patel, an astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich said: “These satellites are about the size of a table, but they’re very reflective, and their panels reflect lots of the Sun’s light, which means that we can see them in images that we take with telescopes.

“These satellites are also big radiowave users… and that means they can interfere with the signals that astronomers using. So it also affects radio astronomy as well.”

Dr. Clements said it would be particularly troublesome for telescopes taking large surveys of the sky, such as the future Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in Chile.

He explained: “What we want to do with LSST and other telescopes is to make a real-time motion picture of how the sky is changing…

“Now we have these satellites that interrupt observations, and it’s like someone’s walking around firing a flashbulb every now and again.”

What steps have been taken already?

SpaceX told the BBC that they were actively working with international astronomers to minimize the impact of the Starlink satellites.

For their next launch, they are trialing a special coating that is designed to make the spacecraft less bright to see if this will help.

OneWeb, which is planning a mega-constellation of these satellites, said they wanted to be a “thought leader in responsible space” and were putting their satellites into an orbit of 1,200km so they would not interfere with astronomical observations.

Ruth Pritchard-Kelly, vice president of OneWeb, said: “We chose an orbit as part of our dedication to responsible use of outer space… And we’ve also talked to the astronomy community before we launched to make sure that that our satellites won’t be too reflective, and that there won’t be radio interference with their radio astronomy.”

She added that it shouldn’t be a case of having to choose between connectivity and astronomy.

“There is no question that the entire world is entitled to be connected to the internet…. So it’s going to happen. And probably three or four of these systems are going to happen,” she said.

“And the question will be working with the other stakeholders to make sure that we’re not interfering with them, whether they are existing satellite technologies, or the mobile phone on the ground, or the astronomy community.

“We know we’re going to work it out with everybody.”


Here is a link to track all the Starlink Satellites in orbit. Are they over you?

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