The unexpected brightness of new satellites could ruin the night sky

May 30, 2019

'TWAS QUITE a show: a train of illuminated dots moving across the sky, many of them as bright as Polaris, the north star. These were not new astronomical objects, however. Rather, they were the first tranche of satellites for Starlink, a project intended to provide internet access across the globe. These were launched into orbit on May 24th by SpaceX, an American rocketry firm.

Seeing satellites from the ground with the naked eye is nothing new. But astronomers (professional and amateur) were surprised, and unhappy, at just how many and how bright the Starlink satellites appeared to be. Quite a few of them took to Twitter to raise the alarm and post pictures and videos of the blazing birds. Their worry was that these satellites and their successors could change the night sky for ever. If the initial 60 members of the Starlink network were already causing noticeable light pollution, they reasoned, how bad would it get once the full constellation of 12,000 had been launched?

For those who enjoy watching the night sky for pleasure it would surely be sad, for it would more than triple the number of man-made objects in the firmament and thus further degrade the natural beauty of the heavens—a beauty already diminished in many places by light pollution from the ground. For those involved in investigating the universe...


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