Does anyone look up anymore? At all? When I was a kid, watching the night sky was one of my favorite things to do. Not star gazing, but watching the sky and looking for anything that wasn’t a star.
I’ve seen a great number of meteoroids, eclipses and even a fireball once in the Nevada desert. When my friends and I were young we saw a UFO that we affectionately named Colby, only to be disappointed when my dad told us it was actually a satellite. I’ve always been a believer and have seen a few UFO’s (I’ll have to write about that another time) but lately Mark and I have been seeing multiple satellites move through the sky each night without fail!
We take Muppet outside to do his business around 10pm before we go to bed. And almost each night we see a satellite and often we will see more than one. Last night we saw three! Now when I was a kid, seeing Colby was a big deal, because even spending hours watching the night sky we felt lucky if we spotted a satellite. Now the sky is so full of them that you can’t NOT see one as long as you are far enough away from city lights and have visibility. This is what a satellite looks like from earth in case you’ve never seen one. We’ve seen some other strange objects that didn’t appear to be satellites too, but as I said, that can wait for another post.
So, for weeks now we have been observing a crazy amount of satellites in the sky JUST IN THE TEN MINUTES WE ARE OUTSDE WITH THE DOG! This has me wondering how many we could track if we sat out there all night.
Roughly thirty years have passed since the days my friends and I would watch Colby pass by, conjuring thoughts of UFO’s and aliens. In that time it’s fair to say many more satellites litter space. But the first thought I had after seeing them in the past few weeks was of the private company SpaceX and the satellite constellation they have been actively launching.
Elon Musk is the man who owns SpaceX, as almost everyone knows, and the company has an active project called Starlink that could provide internet capabilities to every inch of the planet. Starlink is a satellite constellation, the largest in our world, boasting 480 satellites orbiting earth. 480 doesn’t sound too terrible, right? I mean the earth is a big place so it doesn’t seem like they would be jamming up space traffic; but SpaceX wants to launch up to 42,000 satellites over the next ten years, with 12,000 the number it is licensed to launch as of now! It isn’t just laypeople like myself who find this disturbing; a lot of people in the space community are concerned.
Many astronomers are saying Starlink will be a huge threat to their work. Satellites ruin images of the night sky and having a whole bunch more could really impede the ability to see distant objects. Astronomers think they can manage with the first proposed batch of 1,500 but aren’t sure about what happens beyond that.
Then there are the guys who track satellites (the Air Force Space Surveillance Network), who say adding more satellites ups the risk of collisions, which causes a LOT of debris, which then poses a threat to even more objects in space. Some even fear that such a large number of satellites could skew our tracking abilities altogether making it difficult to see them all. Even the Air Force only creates estimates of orbits and cannot track them directly! This past September one of the SpaceX satellites got so close to a Europen satellite that the ESA had to change the course of theirs to avoid a collision. SpaceX blamed a computer bug for their lack of communication with the ESA. It isn’t only collisions, having so many satellites up there could make launching to space difficult.
I’m not an expert, by far, and SpaceX is making tracking data more available and even talking about putting a coating on the satellites to make them less reflective and bright. I’m not trying to make the company out to be evil. But I do think we should all be thinking about and talking about what is going on right above our heads. Are the satellites I have been seeing in the sky SpaceX satellites? Who knows. But they are there, and they will only grow in number.