SpaceX Satellites Ruin Perfectly Good View of Comet NEOWISE

An image of Comet NEOWISE marred by Starlink satellites.
An image of Comet NEOWISE marred by Starlink satellites.
Photo: Daniel López

Nowhere is safe from light pollution, not even space. On Wednesday, astrophotographer Daniel López shared a photo he captured of Comet NEOWISE the day before at Teide National Park on the Canary Islands. However, SpaceX’s Starlink satellites ruined the image, painting streaks across the otherwise largely pristine sky.

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This is the satellites’ latest intrusion into the world of astronomy. Greater concerns around the inescapable presence of light have existed on planet Earth for years, but human-made illumination is starting to pollute the edges of the planet, too. Astronomers are facing challenges when these satellites pop up and pollute images they take of far-off galaxies and, now, comets.

SpaceX has launched 540 satellites into orbit as part of its efforts to bring high-speed internet throughout the world by 2021. The plan, though, is for the company to eventually have tens of thousands of these satellites in space. The company is run by Elon Musk, a billionaire not exactly known for following rules or caring about how his decisions impact others. But it’s not just SpaceX, other companies want to follow suit as well. Understandably, the astronomy community is pissed.

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The full image López captured July 21, 2020.
The full image López captured July 21, 2020.
Photo: Daniel López

“Astronomers, astrophysicists, and astrophotographers are concerned about the great deployment of small satellites orbiting the earth,” López said in an email to Earther. “Now they want to launch some 40,000 [satellites] later, other companies will want to launch their own into orbit, and the sky will not be what it has been for millions of years. Thousands of dots will appear and disappear in the night sky.”

Back on Earth, the intrusion of light in nature creates its own slew of problems. An overabundance of unnatural light is fueling the loss of insects around the world. It also throws off the behavior of a number of critters, such as salamanders, baby turtles, and tree frogs. Then, of course, there’s the value lost when a community loses a dark sky to light-filled development. It’s hard to put a dollar amount on the beautiful sight of night that’s dark like, well, night.

Astronomers are also sensitive to the state of the night sky and have long sought out places free of ground-based light pollution to conduct research. Now, even their research in some of the most natural dark places on Earth suffering as a result of lights in space and with it, our understanding of our place in the universe.

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“I personally think that if no action is taken, it will be the end of astronomy as we know it from the surface of the Earth,” López said.

Humans need to rethink the role of light both on Earth and on the outer edges of the planet and beyond. Otherwise, our star-filled skies will be lost for good. SpaceX is already taking steps to reduce how much light the satellites reflect from the white antennae mounted on them, but these problems may only be the beginning of space pollution.

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Yessenia Funes is a senior staff writer with Earther. She loves all things environmental justice and dreams of writing children's books.

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DISCUSSION

Ok, you all realize that that’s a composite image, right? The photographer selected the exposures which had a satellite pass through it and stacked them on top of one another. He could just as easily have selected the ones that didn’t have a satellite.

Or, even more damningly, he could have used standard stacking to remove intruding objects and produce a clean image. It’s a standard software feature in image processors. Android’s Night Sight and the iPhone’s Night Mode use it to get rid of ghosting from the multiple exposures they take.

Granted, actual astronomical imaging works differently, but that’s why this photo is an invalid justification for that concern.