For modern astronomers, satellites are only a part of life. There are more than 2,000 active people orbiting the Earth, and the brightest minds in space photography have managed to remove the occasional overflights from their space imagery.
But then there is Starlink. The first phases of the SpaceX plan to launch up to 42,000 satellites to fully power the Earth have so far captured 122 objects. After the first big start in May, the astronomers were worried.
Now, a second start has taken place, and their concerns have really come true.
Wow !! I'm in shock !! The huge amount of Starlink satellites crossed our skies tonight at @cerrotololo . Our DECam exposure was heavily influenced by 19 of them! The train of the Starlink satellites took more than 5 minutes !! Depressing … That's not cool! pic.twitter.com/gK0ekbpLJe
– Clarae Martínez-Vázquez (@ 89Marvaz) November 18, 2019
In the early morning on November 18 at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in northern Chile, the track of the re-launched Starlink satellites flew across the sky, filling an image captured by the Dark Energy Camera (DECam).
Each of these dashed lines in the picture below is a Starlink satellite.
While about 40 shots of the small and large Magellanic Clouds were made About 90 minutes before sunrise, SpaceX's Starlink satellite train entered the camera's view, glowing in the early morning sunlight, and took a full five minutes to disappear from the telescope's view.
"Wow !! I'm shocked," wrote CTIO astronomer Clara Martinez-Vazquez about Twit ter . She noted that there were 19 satellite tracks, which is far more than a normal satellite run.
Although the satellites are dark most of the night sky (which still causes some problems), sunlight can hit the satellites directly after sunset or in the early morning when the sky is still black. They are visible through fancy astronomy telescopes as well as through ordinary old binoculars.
"These things are big enough to be picked up in the sunlight with binoculars and larger objects," said Cees Bassa of The Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy, Forbes reported.
And astronomers are not impressed. As we have already reported, they have raised some big issues with Starlink. First, there will be a lot of these objects in orbit, which could dramatically affect the way astronomers can see and hear the sky.
"A complete constellation of Starlink satellites is likely to mark the end of terrestrial microwaves." Radio telescopes can search the sky for weak radio objects, "Swinburne University astronomer Alan Duffy said in May to ScienceAlert after the first launch of Starlink satellites.
The second batch of 60 Starlink satellites was launched just over a week ago on November 11th. They have not yet reached their final operating altitude – but this altitude is expected to be lower than the first batch.
Sky watchers also note that Starlink is more reflective than other satellites, and if thousands of additional satellites were not an issue by themselves, the fact that they are particularly bright is just one more thing astronomers think about We'll get a better feel for it when Satellite n orbits and arrays to track the sun.
– Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 27, 2019
Astronomers can remove the traces from their images when Starlink comes into sight, but much of the information scientists use is contained in the raw images, not in See the pretty photos we use. In addition, it is one thing to remove a single satellite track from one image and another to remove 19.
So far, people are making fun of SpaceX's Elon Musk on social media.
– Astro Noel (@astro_noel) November 18, 2019
How astronomers and SpaceX solve these conflicting needs is still unknown but with two more planned launches this year, there is a possibility that this will not be the last time we learn of this problem.