Last week, we were watching TV, and Sachi jumped from her seat and opened the doors to go outside and peer into the night sky. We both looked up to see what looked like an alien invasion. Small bright dots were moving across the sky in a line. There were a dozen or more in view and they seemed to fade out of view, one after the other, until they were gone.
I snapped a bunch of photos, including this one:
Needless to say, it was a remarkable and strange event. Seeing space stations and lone satellites is not that odd, but seeing these dots, arranged so neatly and moving so smoothly in a line was fascinating.
We saw a less dramatic version over the summer that put me in research mode. The dots are satellites and specifically, Starlink satellites that are being used to beam internet access to earth. There are currently about 2,500 satellites in orbit, and once the full network is complete there may be as many as 40,000 satellites. At that point, internet access via Starlink may be open to everyone on the earth who can pay for it.
The satellites we saw that night were launched from a SpaceX Falcon 9 ship on September 24th. Once released, they orbit over the earth for a couple of days as they become further apart and closer to their final destinations, a few miles up. The line is called a satellite train.
For many people, including some in our region, Starlink is a godsend because it provides fast and mostly consistent internet from virtually anywhere. You just need a dish, a paid account, and a view of the sky. Many hope it will help underserved areas around the world, and provide a connection in wilderness or unpopulated regions where people are otherwise isolated. We have friends who use it to work from their rural homes.
This, of course, is not happening without controversy. Starlink and SpaceX are both owned by Elon Musk, who also owns Tesla. No one has ever tried to add so many satellites to orbit, so there are a lot of unknowns about how it will impact astronomy and stargazing. 40,000 satellites is a lot of space junk. However, they won’t stick around after they no longer function. They are close enough to earth to be pulled into our atmosphere where they safely burn up. Interestingly, that’s a big challenge for the company. They fail and burn up all the time, and then require replacement.
The question for many people is: do we want to look up and see a bunch of satellites instead of real stars? Researchers created a simulation of what would happen if 65,000 satellites were in orbit over a few years. They found that, when viewing the night sky, 1 in 16 “stars” could be a satellite that’s also moving. I don’t think many people want, or are prepared for that reality, even if it comes with great internet connections.
SpaceX has introduced a project called DarkSat, which is meant to reduce the visibility of satellites from earth by coating them with an anti-reflective paint. Astronomers aren’t convinced.
For now, SpaceX is on track to keep putting up new satellites every few weeks. There are four launches scheduled for October, 2022. You can track the satellite trains with info on this website.