Simply put – We are losing the beauty of our night skies; whether it be to light pollution or sky pollution. What’s the difference? Light pollution is that annoying glow you see cast up into the night sky; light that comes from misdirected light sources or street lamps in our cities and neighborhoods. It is a battle that is currently being fought by concerned citizens and astronomers.
Sky pollution is when our night skies are flooded by lights from passing aircraft. But now add to the mix of sky pollution – satellites. To see a dark starry sky with an occasional passing satellite or pass of the International Space Station is really quite cool. For those of you, who have been privileged to see a dark starry sky without disturbance from light pollution or passing aircraft, consider yourself lucky, because it is all changing very rapidly.
Since May 2019, SpaceX has launched a number of their Starlink satellites into space. As of this writing, SpaceX has launched five rockets each carrying 60 tiny satellites into space. Now when we view the night sky, we see a constellation of numerous lights trailing across our skies; in essence a string of pearls. These small satellites do not give off their own light, but are simply reflecting sunlight and we can see them even through the muck of light pollution.
Why all of these satellites? SpaceX is a business and they have a plan. Their plan is to place these satellites into orbit so that all corners of the world will have internet access – for a price of course. SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, hopes that the generated revenue will be able to fund their proposed future Starship Mars colony project.
It appears SpaceX has gone through all the proper channels and received approval from the Federal Communications Commission to launch their megacontellation of satellites, but for some reason sky enthusiasts and astronomers were left out of the link in discussions or their pleas fell on deaf ears. And it is quite evident that these satellites are already having an impact on astronomical research. If professional observatory telescopes or amateurs have their telescopes and cameras trained on distant objects in space, and multiple satellites pass through their images, they are left with “streaks” of light in the image(s). There is software that can remove these trails of reflected light, but that cost time and money and impacts astronomical research.
Indeed even the 300 satellites currently in orbit has cluttered the night sky. But SpaceX actually plans to launch anywhere from 12,000 to 30,000 satellites by 2022. Other companies would like to follow suit and increase communications access such as Telesat, Amazon, and OneWeb just to name a few. Over time these satellites will reach higher orbits, but they will still be close enough to Earth to be seen. They need to be fairly close so that internet signals are speedy and reliable for those in remote parts of the world. These satellites are tiny and mass produced, but they do reflect a lot of sunlight. SpaceX is currently working on ways to make their satellites less reflective, but in this latest round of “darker satellites” amateur astronomers are reporting that these satellites are still too bright and frequently flare in brightness.
As a professional amateur astronomer, I’ve seen these satellites on many occasions. They are bright and they can easily be seen with the unaided eye even from light polluted cities. When you see them, you’ll know it because they look like a string of pearls strung out across the sky. Seeing an occasional satellite cross the night sky is quite awe-inspiring, but to have tens of thousands of these satellites in space would make the sky appear as if it were crawling – especially if viewed from a dark site away from city lights.
With so many Starlink satellites traversing our skies, it deprives sky enthusiasts and amateur astronomers of an unblemished view of the night sky. But most of all it is and will significantly degrade astronomical research. Most astronomers are used to an occasional passing satellite through their image or field of view, but not hundreds or thousands.
The sky is there for everyone to enjoy and its beauty should not be marred by corporate giants. My hope for those of you reading this is that you’ll make the attempt to find a dark site away from city lights and enjoy its beauty. Take your kids, your friends, family, and neighbors out before it’s too late. But then again, it may already be too late. If you are so inclined, please take a stand to protect our night skies from light pollution and sky pollution. We cannot afford to lose this valued and important natural resource.
If you would like to know how to find these satellites crisscrossing your sky you can visit websites such as Heavens Above or Calsky. You can choose or set your home location, where it will provide viewing opportunities (time, date, direction to look) for the Starlink satellites and many others.
Good Luck and Keep Looking Up!