Elon Musk’s growing constellation of internet satellites is sending streaks of bright light across the night skies around the world. Even the largest comet to pass the Earth in 25 years has not been saved.
A striking photo showing Comet Neowise behind those streaks of light shows how easily satellites can capture observations of distant objects in space.
The satellite project, called Starlink, is Musk’s plan to sing to Earth in high-speed satellite internet. The effort has attracted criticism from professional and amateur astronomers, however because bright satellites can mark the skies and disrupt telescope observations.
That happened to astrophotographer Daniel López on July 21, when he shot Comet Neowise before flying out of sight for another 6,800 years. He shared the resulting image on the Facebook page of his photography company, El Cielo de Canarias, and said it was a shame to see the satellites make such a spectacle.
López’s photo is composed of 17 images taken in the span of 30 seconds. Each image had a long exposure, which means it caught the comet over several seconds.
Astronomer Julien Girard shared the picture on Twitter, saying the satellites were “completely photomombed” to the comet.
“Two of my pictures last night were also bombed by Starlink,” Girard said.
López also shared the time-lapse video after the press. He added that satellite traces were visible in 20 of his images.
Because it is a composite time-lapse photograph, the image does not show what you see with the naked eye. But it shows why many astronomers worry about the threat that satellite constellations like Starlink pose to ground-based astronomy.
Too many satellites can connect to astronomy on Earth
Long exposure images are a crucial part in the study of distant objects in the night sky. Telescopes on Earth see celestial targets for hours, slowly building a detailed image that offers astronomers rich data.
But one Starlink satellite with a bad time can design that kind of research by creating a long series in the image and blocking the objects that astronomers want to study.
“In those few seconds, a full 10 or 15-minute exposure is canceled,” astronomer Jonathan McDowell told Business Insider in June.
SpaceX is sharing Starlink’s orbital path data with astronomers so they can plan their telescope observations around satellite movements. Shutting down the camera briefly as the satellite hovers over you can save a long exposure image.
But Musk’s ambitions can make it almost impossible to avoid fast-moving satellites. SpaceX has sought permission from the government to put a total of 42,000 satellites into orbit to form a “megacostellation” around the Earth.
“If they’re arriving all the time, then knowing when they’re arriving isn’t helpful,” McDowell said. Even now, he added, sometimes astronomers can’t avoid photobombs.
SpaceX is not the only company to build a massive fleet of satellites. Companies like OneWeb and Amazon have similar ambitions.
“The sky will not be what it has been for millions of years. Thousands of spots will appear and disappear into the night sky,” López told Gizmodo. “Personally I think that if no action is taken, this will be the end of astronomy as we know it from the face of the Earth.”
Professional astronomers gave devastating warnings in the same way.
“The night sky is for everyone. It has been scrutinized and used for millennia,” Girard said. “We should cherish it and protect it like our land.”
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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