PHILADELPHIA – A series of lights flying across the night sky in parts of the United States on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday made some people wonder if a fleet of UFOs was on the way, but it had others – mostly amateur stars and professional astronomers – who lamented the industrialization of space.
What you need to know
- Callers flooded TV stations across the country over a series of small lights in the night sky
- The chain of small lights looked like a string of pearls and were SpaceX Starlink satellites
- They are launched in groups on 60 small satellites from Cape Canaveral or the Kennedy Space Center
- Astronomers have lamented the pollution they cause and the industrialization of space
The light was actually a series of relatively low-flying satellites launched by Elon Musk̵
An email to a spokesman for SpaceX was not returned Saturday, but astronomy experts said the number of lights in rapid succession and their distance from Earth made them easily identifiable as Starlink satellites for those accustomed to seeing them.
“The way you can tell that they are Starlink satellites is that they are like a string of pearls, these lights move in the same ground orbit, one after the other,” said Dr. Richard Fienberg, Press Officer for the American Astronomical Society.
Fienberg said the satellites, which are launched in large groups called constellations, string together as they orbit, especially right after launch. The strings get smaller as time goes on.
This month, SpaceX has already launched dozens of satellites. It’s all part of a plan to bridge the digital divide and bring Internet access to underserved areas of the world, with SpaceX tentatively scheduled to launch another 120 satellites later this month. In total, the company has sent about 1,500 satellites into orbit and has asked for permission to launch thousands more.
But ahead of recent years, there were perhaps a few hundred satellites orbiting the Earth in total, most visible as individual lights moving across the sky, Fienberg said. The other handful of companies planning or launching the satellite constellations have not been launched recently and have largely pushed them into orbit farther from Earth, he said.
Fienberg’s group, as well as others representing both professional and amateur stars, do not love the proliferation of satellites that can obscure scientific data and ruin a clear evening of seeing the universe. The International Astronomical Union issued a statement in July 2019, noting concerns over the multiple satellite broadcasts.
“The organization generally takes the principle of a dark and radio-silent sky as not only crucial to promoting our understanding of the universe of which we are a part, but also as a resource for all of humanity and for the protection of nocturnal wildlife,” the union representatives wrote. . They noted that light reflection can interfere with astronomical research, but the radio waves can also cause problems for specialized research equipment such as those that captured the first images of a black hole.
Fienberg said there is no real regulation of light pollution from satellites, but SpaceX has voluntarily worked to mitigate it by creating visors that attenuate the satellites’ reflection of sunlight. They have made significant progress in just two years, he said, but many hope that one day the satellites will be so small that they will not be visible to the naked eye, even at dusk or dawn.
Fienberg noted that a massive telescope was being built in Chile that cost millions of dollars and a decade of planning. The telescope will capture a huge slice of the sky in the southern hemisphere and take continuous images to record a kind of film showing the changing universe. Because of its size, nearly eight feet across, the massive telescope could also lead to the discovery of brighter objects in the night sky, he said.
The plan is for the telescope to start recording in 2023. And with plans for thousands of satellites, Fienberg said it’s hard to imagine that they will not cause problems with the data, as there is no way to correct for their light. and know how much light is to be emitted from brighter objects behind the satellite path, which can also create ghost images in the data.
“We are talking to companies now and hope to continue to make progress, and potentially before it goes into operation, have the tools and techniques to correct for the lights and perhaps weaker satellites,” Fienberg said. “We can not say that this is wrong and you have to stop because the point is to provide internet access to the whole globe. It is an admirable goal that we would support if it did not mean giving up something else … the night sky. “
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