The ever-growing constellation of Elon Musko’s satellites emitted bright streams of light into the night sky around the world. Not even the largest comet passing through the Earth in 25 years was spared.
A spectacular photo of Comet Neowise behind those sections of light shows how satellites can easily tilt distant objects in space.
The satellite project, called Starlink, is Musko’s plan to cover the Earth with high-speed satellite internet. However, the effort has received criticism from professional and amateur astronomers, as bright satellites can catch the sky and interfere with telescope observations.
That’s what happened to astrophotographer Daniel López on July 21, when he was photographing Comet Neowise, until he was still 6,800 years old. He shared the resulting image on the Facebook page of his photography company El Cielo de Canarias, saying it was frustrating to see satellites making such an impression.
The López photo contains 17 images taken in 30 seconds. Each image was exposed for a long time, meaning it captured a comet in a matter of seconds.
Astronomer Julien Girard shared the photo on Twitter, saying the satellites had “completely disarmed” the comet.
“Two of my pictures were also bombed by Starlink the next night [satellite]”Girard said.
López also shared a video that was captured over time. He added that traces of the satellites were visible in 20 of his images.
Because it’s a difficult time frame, the image doesn’t show what you’d see with the naked eye. But this illustrates why many astronomers are concerned about the threat to terrestrial astronomy from satellite constellations such as Starlink.
Too many satellites can confuse astronomy on Earth
Long-exposure images are especially important when studying distant objects in the night sky. Telescopes on Earth observe celestial targets for hours on end, slowly creating a detailed image that provides astronomers with a wealth of data.
But one poorly selected Starlink satellite can ruin this type of research, creating a long image and blocking objects that astronomers want to explore.
“In a matter of seconds, the entire 10-15 minute exposure is ruined,” astronomer Jonathan McDowell told Business Insider in June.
SpaceX shares Starlink orbital data with astronomers so they can plan their telescope observations around satellite movements. You can save a long exposure by turning off the camera briefly when the satellite passes through your head.
However, Musko’s ambitions can make it nearly impossible to avoid fast-moving satellites. SpaceX has asked the government for permission to launch 42,000 satellites into orbit to “mega-constellate” around Earth.
“If they come all the time, then knowing when they’re coming isn’t helpful,” McDowell said. Even now, he added, sometimes astronomers cannot avoid photo bombs.
SpaceX isn’t the only company building a huge satellite fleet. 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,” López 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 issued similar horrific warnings.
“The night sky is for everyone, it has been inspected and used for millennia,” Girard said. “We should nurture and protect it just like our Earth.”