Elon Musk’s growing constellation of Internet satellites sends streaks of bright light across the night or around the world. Not even the largest comet that has passed through Earth in 25 years has been spared.
A remarkable photograph of Comet Neowis behind these streaks of light shows how easily satellites can interfere with the observation of distant objects in space.
A satellite project called Starlink is Muska’s plan to cover the Earth with high-speed satellite internet. However, these efforts have provoked criticism from professional and amateur astronomers, as bright satellites can disrupt the sky and disturb the telescope.
This happened to astronomer Daniel López on July 21, when he fired at Comet Neowis before they flew 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.
Photography Lópeza is composed of 17 images taken within 30 seconds. Each image had a long exposure, meaning it captured the comet within seconds.
Astronomer Julien Girard shares the image on Twitter, saying the satellites have a “completely photobomb” comet.
“Two of my pictures were also bombed by Starlink last night [satellite], ”Girard said.
López also shared a time-lapse video behind the picture. He added that traces of satellites were visible in 20 of his images.
Because this is a complex time interval, the image does not show what you would see with the naked eye. However, this shows why many astronomers fear the threat that satellite constellations such as Starlink pose to terrestrial astronomy.
With astronomy on Earth, there would be too many satellites
Long-exposure images are crucial when studying distant objects in the night sky. Telescopes on Earth track celestial targets for hours and slowly create a detailed image that offers astronomers rich data.
However, one ill-timed Starlink satellite can destroy this type of research by creating a long band across the image and blocking objects that astronomers want to study.
“In a few seconds, the entire 10- or 15-minute exposure is destroyed,” astronomer Jonathan McDowell told Business Insider in June.
SpaceX shares Starlink orbital route data with astronomers so they can plan their telescope observations around satellite movements. Turning off the camera briefly when the satellite is overhead can save a long exposure image.
However, Musk’s ambitions could have made it almost impossible to avoid fast-moving satellites. SpaceX has requested government permission to place a total of 42,000 satellites in orbit to create a “mega-institution” around the Earth.
“If they come continuously, then knowing when they’re coming is not helpful,” McDowell said. He added that astronomers sometimes cannot avoid photobombers.
SpaceX is not the only company to build a huge fleet of satellites. Companies like OneWeb and Amazon have similar ambitions.
“Heaven will not be what it has been for millions of years. Thousands of dots will appear and disappear in the night sky, “López told Gizmodo. “Personally, I think that if no action is taken, it will be the end of astronomy as we know it from the face of the Earth.”
Professional astronomers have issued similar threatening warnings.
“The night sky is for everyone, it has been explored and used for millennia,” Girard said. “We should respect and protect it as much as we do our Earth.”