The growing constellation of Ilona Maska’s Internet satellites sends bands of bright light across the night sky around the world. Even the largest comet that has passed the Earth in 25 years did not regret it.
An impressive photograph showing a comet behind these bands of light shows how easily satellites can flip over observations of distant objects in space.
The satellite project, called Starlink, is Musk’s plan to cover the Earth with high-speed satellite Internet. These efforts have been criticized by professional and amateur astronomers, as bright satellites can mark the sky and disrupt telescope observations.
This is exactly what happened to astrophotographer Daniel Lopez on July 21, when he was filming Comet Neolais before it took off for another 6,800 years. He shared the image on his photo company’s Facebook page, El Cielo de Canarias, saying he was ashamed to see the satellites make such a spectacle.
Lopez’s photo is a composition of 17 images taken in 30 seconds. Each image was a long exposure, ie it captured the comet for a few seconds.
Astronomer Julien Girard shared the photo on Twitter, saying that the satellites “completely photographed” the comet.
“Two of my photos the night before were also bombed by Starlink [satellite]said Girard.
Lopez also shared a video over time. He added that 20 of his images show traces of satellites.
Because it is a complex period of time, the image does not show what you saw with the naked eye. But it illustrates why many astronomers worry about the threat that satellite constellations like Starlink pose to terrestrial astronomy.
Too many satellites could tinker with astronomy on Earth
Images of long-term exposure are crucial in the study of distant objects in the night sky. Telescopes on Earth observe celestial targets for hours, slowly creating a detailed image that offers astronomers rich data.
But one ill-sustained Starlink satellite can destroy such research by creating a long band of images and blocking objects that astronomers want to study.
“In those few seconds, the entire 10- or 15-minute exposure was destroyed,” astronomer Jonathan McDowell told Business Insider in June.
SpaceX exchanges Starlink orbital path data with astronomers so they can plan their telescope observations around satellite motion. Turning off the camera for a short time when the satellite is overhead can save images with a long exposure.
But Musk’s ambitions could make it almost impossible to avoid fleeting satellites. SpaceX has asked the government for permission to launch a total of 42,000 satellites into orbit to form a “megaconstellation” around the Earth.
“If they’re coming all the time, it’s not helpful to know when they’re coming,” McDowell said. Even now, he added, sometimes astronomers cannot avoid cameras.
SpaceX is not the only company building a huge fleet of satellites. Companies like OneWeb and Amazon have similar ambitions.
“The sky will not be what it was millions of years ago. Thousands of points will appear and disappear in the night sky,” Lopez told Gizmodo. “I personally think that if no action is taken, it will be the end of astronomy, as we know it from the Earth’s surface.”
Professional astronomers have made similar warnings.
“The night sky is for everyone, it is carefully tested and used for millennia,” Girard said. “We must nurture and protect it in the same way as our Earth.”