Images are emerging online of Comet NEOWISE—a spectacular comet from the outer Solar System on a once-in-6,800 years journey into the inner Solar System—that also show Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s Starlink satellites.
An image created by Daniel López of El Cielo de Canarias (The Sky of The Canary Islands), published on Facebook and circulated on Twitter by astronomer Julien Girard shows Comet NEOWISE being “completely photobombed” by dozens of the unexpectedly bright satellites:
The above image is not one photo, but 17 stacked together, each of them long exposure images. It’s a time-lapse, so doesn’t reflect what an observer would see with the naked eye. However, it does demonstrate just how easily seen the Starlink satellites can be.
Here’s how to take a photo of Comet NEOWISE for yourself.
Meanwhile, there are many other images taken of Comet NEOWISE recently that also feature Starlink satellites.
What is SpaceX Starlink?
Starlink is a super-fast internet service that will be delivered via satellite. Satellite broadband internet hasn’t been possible thus far because communication satellites have been too far away to create anything other than a slow connection.
However, with satellites in a low Earth orbit (LEO) it’s possible that SpaceX Starlink’s service could bring a fast enough speed—perhaps a gigabit per second—to appeal to those in rural areas and other locations where fast internet has so far been expensive or unavailable.
That’s not going to persuade astrophotographers, who are watching Starlink “ruining” their hobby, as this image demonstrates:
How many SpaceX Starlink satellites are now in orbit?
There are now over 500 Starlink satellites in orbit. However, SpaceX plans to deploy 12,000 satellites by the mid-2020s—8,000 satellites 500km up and 4,000 satellites in a 1,200km high orbit.
In the future SpaceX could have as many as 42,000 broadband internet satellites in orbit.
However, that’s just one company. Others are also planning mega-constellations; this could be an ever-growing and long-term issue for astronomers.
Though the satellites are most easily visible during the start and end of the night, they are visible throughout the night, too.
How could SpaceX Starlink satellites affect science and astronomy?
Although for now it’s “only” astrophotographers whose images are affected by the brightness of Starlink satellites, there’s a worry among professional astronomers that they are affecting important observations.
The biggest concern is for wide-field sky surveys designed to identify incoming meteors and comets, and much more besides. For example, it’s thought that the $466 million Vera Rubin Observatory in Chile, which will have its “first light” in 2022, could be especially disadvantaged by the brightness of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation.
It will survey the entire visible sky in just three nights, effectively producing a motion picture of our Universe. Much of its data may be affected by the brightness of Starlink satellites.
What is SpaceX doing about it?
Can SpaceX fix the problem? All 57 of the newest Starlink satellites—which launched earlier this month—are so-called “VisorSats” fitted with shields to block sunlight from hitting the brightest parts of the spacecraft.
There’s a lot of anger amongst amateur and professional astronomers, though SpaceX is clearly concerned and trying to mitigate the situation.
Can a solution be reached, or will this problem get worse? Is is a price worth paying for more connectivity?
Either way, when is comes to mega-constellations, the photobombing of occasional comets could turn out to be the least of astronomy’s problems.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.