Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s hundreds of satellites cluttering up the galaxy.
A plethora of massive internet satellites launched by eco-friendly billionaire Elon Musk are swirling overhead — and astronomers are trying mightily to figure out how to deal with the sun’s glaring reflection off those man-made orbiters.
“There’s almost no place in the sky that you won’t see a satellite going by,” the American Astronomical Society’s Rick Feinberg told The Post.
Already, the trails from these satellite necklaces have stained images taken by world-class telescopes. And skygazers are worried about the long-lasting effects on scientific research — especially with Musk’s SpaceX, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos’ Project Kuiper and OneWeb, a venture co-owned by the British government and Indian mobile giant Bharti Global, planning to launch tens of thousands of satellites over the next few years.
Amazon’s 3,236 satellites aren’t off the ground yet and OneWeb has only about 70 out of 700 orbiting right now, but SpaceX already has 750 up and expects to eventually operate more than 40,000. SpaceX, which delayed a mission Friday because of the weather, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“There is no way to avoid an impact of the satellites on ground-based astronomy,” said astronomer Jeff Hall, the director of Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. “Even if satellites are invisible to the unaided eye, they are blindingly bright to modern research telescopes.”
A particular worry is what the satellites will do to a decade-long project slated to start in 2022 by the Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile. The 27-foot telescope, being built by the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department, will be coupled to a gigantic digital camera that takes snapshots of the heavens every three days.
“It’s like making a 10-year movie of the night sky,”Feinberg said. “It’ll be sweeping the sky — looking for asteroids, looking for supernovas, basically mapping the universe.”
The telescope’s camera field is sure to capture satellite trails in part of every picture — and the pictures will be worthless if the streaks are too bright, Feinberg said.
Shortly after SpaceX’s first satellite mission, astronomers went to the company — and found a helping hand, Hall told The Post.
First, engineers darkened parts of the satellites, which made the reflection fainter but not as faint as astronomers had hoped. Then, they installed visors to block sunlight from reaching the satellites and reflecting to the ground, he explained. Now, they’re experimenting with the satellites’ orientation, which should make them invisible to the naked eye at lower orbits and fairly faint at higher ones.
“The higher the satellite, the longer it takes for the sun to set on it,” Feinberg said. “It might literally be visible all night long.”
Astronomers, too, are brainstorming on how they can minimize the impact of the satellites. For example, Feinberg said, one suggestion is making more orbital information available in real time so researchers can simply avoid the satellites. Another is a computer program that essentially wipes out the trails from photos.
And yet, despite all the headaches, astronomers are pushing forward. They’ve had setbacks before, like when NASA’s Hubble space telescope had a big failure.
“We’ve been through hell,” Feinberg told The Post, “and we’ve always found a way to bounce back.”
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SpaceX, Elon Musk, Astronomy
World news – US – Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellites clutter the skies, frustrating astronomers