back to article How's your night sky looking? The Reg chats to astroboffin Mark McCaughrean about Starlink and leaving a mark

SpaceX is due to fling another 60 Starlink satellites into orbit tonight. The Register spoke to ESA's Senior Advisor for Science & Exploration, Mark McCaughrean, about the night sky and interstellar specks on the windscreen. At 19:30 UTC tonight, a Falcon 9 carrying the seventh Starlink mission is due to leave Florida's Launch …

  1. IceC0ld Silver badge

    Space the final Frontier - allegedly

    from the article -

    "you'd be much better off sticking your Sentinel, your monument as it were, in the Solar System, somewhere we were.

    "These are things we did; these are the mistakes we made."

    ===

    this ^ - the whole deep space thing is not my cup of tea, yes, I can see it has value, but for me, and considering the entirety of the cosmos, maybe the idea of sending tiny little things way out there is not the best way to grab attention, I DO however, happen to believe that the idea of building a massive deep space telescope on the far side of the moon has massive potential, both for knowledge advancement, AND as a long term statement of "WE ARE HERE"

    don't have any real feelings for the Musky one, he is doing his thing, Bezos is doing his thing, I would have preferred if the 00's of BILLIONS they are worth were to have been 'invested. here on Earth - it is FAR to ambitious to consider them ever thinking of doing something for the good of someone else, and I am aware that they, well at least the Musky one, does do other things, but the thought that we could, if not eradicate poverty, at least try to make a dent on the conditions that generate it, and maybe try to sort out the corruption that abounds when people throw money at any such project - OK, I know, would be more realistic to ask how many lanes do you want on that highway to the moon :o)

    but I am still sort of idealistic enough to HOPE that something comes of all this, and that we don't end up locked onto our planet due to the over abundance of satellites and debris up there.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_syndrome

    in short - here's to the future, may it be bright and available to ALL :o)

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Space the final Frontier - allegedly

      > I DO however, happen to believe that the idea of building a massive deep space telescope on the far side of the moon has massive potential

      You are aware that, in the words of the PinkFloyd: "there is no dark side of the moon".

      The moon orbits the earth, for half of its 28 day orbit the other side of the moon would point toward the sun.

      There are are way better places to put a space telescope if you don''t need it to be in LEO

      1. BoraHorzaGobuchul

        Re: Space the final Frontier - allegedly

        The main thing about using the Moon for astronomy is that it's like a bad party: there's no atmosphere.

        That, and on the far side a lack of RF interference from Earth (for the radio astronomy types).

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Space the final Frontier - allegedly

        "You are aware that, in the words of the PinkFloyd: "there is no dark side of the moon"."

        Did you reply to him inside the 10 minute edit window? At this point in time ~5 hours after the original past, it reads "far side of the moon", which the Moon most definitely does have. The post makes no meniotn of the "dark side of the moon".

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Space the final Frontier - allegedly

      “, I would have preferred if the 00's of BILLIONS they are worth were to have been 'invested. here on Earth - it is FAR to ambitious to consider them ever thinking of doing something for the good of someone else”

      How many billions of turnover did Amazon have to do for Bezos to gain his billions?. While Bezos attained great wealth it’s on the back of even huger payments to their suppliers who employ people to produce those products consumers want.

      The point is that amazon has catalysed economic activity.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Space the final Frontier - allegedly

        > 00's of BILLIONS they are worth were to have been 'invested. here on Earth

        Yes stop buying alien satellite kit - tariffs on trade federation imports now !

      2. hoola Bronze badge

        Re: Space the final Frontier - allegedly

        "How many billions of turnover did Amazon have to do for Bezos to gain his billions?. While Bezos attained great wealth it’s on the back of even huger payments to their suppliers who employ people to produce those products consumers want.

        The point is that amazon has catalysed economic activity."

        Bezos has made money by exploiting people (manufacturing), countries (Tax evasion/mitigation) and the insatiable appetite of us to buy ever more tat.

        Bezos is a perfect representation of everything that is wrong with capitalism and western society.

        As far as the constellations are concerned if they were being put up by anything other then a US company then there would be a huge outcry. Some outfit in the UK tried but could not raise the money. Musk and Bezos are not in this to space game for our benefit, just theirs.

  2. Flocke Kroes Silver badge

    Hoped for more

    I have read plenty of comments on the internet about Starlink vs Astronomy. Some of them may have been from professional astronomers and some may have been from trolls trying to cause trouble. I looked at the title and thought "At last! I can find out from someone clearly identifiable as someone who knows what he is talking about what the true extent of the damage will be." What a missed opportunity.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Hoped for more

      It depends what astronomers you ask.

      The sexy stuff in astronomy is very faint stuff from the beginning of the universe.

      These satelites don't really affect that - they are only visible near dawn/dusk because they have to be in sunlight for them to be a problem. The time when the sky is still glowing is useless for deep faint objects.

      it may be a pain for people doing full sky surveys of variable objects - but the Noble committee doesn't care about a bunch of stamp collectors so meh.

      Radio are going to be pissed if these things aren't well designed not to leak in other bands.

      1. Ogi
        Alien

        Re: Hoped for more

        > it may be a pain for people doing full sky surveys of variable objects - but the Noble committee doesn't care about a bunch of stamp collectors so meh.

        Pardon my ignorance in the matter, but doesn't planet hunting come under "full sky surveys of variable objects", as they have to scour the sky looking for variations in a stars brightness/position?

        That does seem to be a very interesting field of study atm.

        Beyond that, the starlink satellites have not yet ruined any of my amateur observations, however there are not that many up there, so the chances of hitting one are still quite small.

        I don't think the objection to starlink is to the current number, but rather the future, when there may well be 30,000 of the things ( https://spacenews.com/spacex-submits-paperwork-for-30000-more-starlink-satellites/ ). How much disruption they will cause at that point I don't know, but by the time we find out it will be too late to do anything about it.

        It tends to be easier to stop/alter a project when its just getting started, rather than after its already established, hence why people are complaining now, while things "don't look too bad" to outsiders.

        1. STOP_FORTH Silver badge
          Holmes

          When they give you lemons

          I'm not trying to minimise the inconvenience these things cause to astro-photographers but.....

          Since there are going to be lots of them and we know their shape, size, altitude, velocity and position at any given time (OK, last one is less certain, they're LEOs)....

          Could they be used for transit/occultation studies?

          Unlike asteroids, they are not all whizzing around the ecliptic.

        2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Hoped for more

          >Pardon my ignorance in the matter, but doesn't planet hunting come under "full sky surveys of variable objects", as they have to scour the sky looking for variations in a stars brightness/position?

          Although these satellites are going to eventually cover the sky they are only a problem when they are lit up, a dark satellite crossing your detector at midnight for a fraction of second doesn't matter.

          They are only visible when they are in sunlight but the sky is dark, which is only true for a short time after sunset/before sunrise, the lower the orbit the shorter this time.

          Any planet survey looking for something faint (and all the bright easy stuff has been done) has to wait for it to be really dark. They also need the valuable few nights a month when there is no moon - called "dark time" in the business. Most planet hunting missions are now done from space because you need to observe the same object in ideal conditions for a long time.

          Whole sky surveys suffer most because a wide field of view means they are going to see more lit up satellites if there are any around. The large pixel scale means a single bright track destroys more data and they need to maximise as much observing time as possible so can observe into twilight much further than deep+dark targets

  3. Spherical Cow Bronze badge

    winking dots

    I watched the ISS fly over my house last night. I always get a big thrill from seeing it. Smaller satellites give a smaller thrill, but there's always a thrill no matter how small they are.

    There's no accounting for taste.

    1. Annihilator Silver badge

      Re: winking dots

      I was just going to say the same. Non-astronomers and astronomers alike enjoy the sight of the ISS going overhead - even capturing pictures of its transit across the sun/moon etc. Iridium flares are cool to observe as well.

      But would it be as exciting and fun if that was all we could see, filling the sky? Again - a middle ground required. I'm sure the early days of aviation it was a thrill to see an aeroplane overhead - today living near Heathrow or similar can't be much fun.

      1. werdsmith Silver badge

        Re: winking dots

        The thrill about watching the ISS passing overhead is to know that there are people on board.

        But Venus in the western sky is also making my heart swell at the moment. Such a presence, if these were medieval times then people would surely link it to our current circumstances.

        Watching a procession of 60 LEO objects is also a reminder of the ingenuity of people, but I feel that an earthbound technology could be found to advance broadband everywhere, that would leave these 260kg birds scrambling for a purpose in just a few years. And we can’t just de-rack them.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: winking dots

          "And we can’t just de-rack them."

          Yeah, we can. They have a de-orbit plan in place for EOL.

          1. werdsmith Silver badge

            Re: winking dots

            Yeah, we can. They have a de-orbit plan in place for EOL.

            The sats have a short life span, but for the system to succeed they have to be continually launched and replaced. That's a big project investment if it becomes obsolete.

            1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

              Re: winking dots

              I'd expect it to be the opposite. Putting a number of big, expensive, long-lived sats up would be a big project investment that is possibly wasted if it becomes obsolete in a short time. Keep putting up many cheap, small sats with a relatively short life means you can starting putting up better ones or quickly stop if the existing lot become obsolete for minimum wasted life-span.

        2. Paul Kinsler

          Re: But Venus in the western sky

          The nice thing about Venus, is that even with a really crap telescope [1], and even from London, you can see its phases (about now is a good time, btw [2]).

          [1] E.g a ~ £15 department store xmas prezzie quality.

          [2] No, not *now* now, it's midday, and that would be silly. Try in the evening :-)

      2. Greybearded old scrote

        Re: winking dots

        I should imagine living near Heathrow is perfectly fine today, hardly anyone is flying. Most of the last 50 years is another matter.

      3. ItsMeDammit

        Re: winking dots

        Iridium flares *were* cool:

        https://heavens-above.com/IridiumDemise.aspx

        It would appear that some of the previous generation units remain as spares but the current satellites do not exhibit this characteristic and have not done so since circa 2018. Sadly people are still marking the Android app down in the Play Store for not showing the flares any more, blissfully unaware that the guys at HA probably loved the flares as well. Boo !

      4. hoola Bronze badge

        Re: winking dots

        The ISS is a very transient occurrence, these constellations are huge when they are finally deployed and will have a far greater impact. When I am doing deep-sky imaging now it is not uncommon to have a frame ruined by a satellite trace. At an amateur level it is an inconvenience, for those actually doing useful stuff it is a major issue.

        And all so that even more people can connect to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc and buy more tat from Amazon. There is your answer, collecting data from even more people.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I saw a line of them fly over a few nights ago and wondered what it was. Then I found out it was Starlink satellites. Went out again last night with the family at the recommended time and saw nothing but stars.

    1. ItsMeDammit

      It's full of stars...

      Like you, several apps and websites all suggested that a train was going overhead for me last night as well (about 21:37) but sadly not. I wonder if someone forgot to carry a 1 somewhere.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: It's full of stars...

        Maybe some got the measurement systems confused during a conversion step. Switching between Metric and El Reg standards can introduce errors when not proceeding cautiously.

      2. Brangdon Bronze badge

        Re: It's full of stars...

        You need to be the right side of them - north or south I forget which - else they don't reflect enough sunlight to you for you to see them.

  5. HippyChippy

    It's not Musk's space to debase - it's ours to be shared?

    I went outside the other night with my 'grab & go' scope with the intention of brushing up on my constellations knowledge - that bit to the left of Leo where The Realm of the Galaxies is supposed to be, and was utterly dismayed by an evenly spaced stream of lights in a train overhead, one after another after another sliding into view. Counting a 9th then 10th in the sky where I wanted to look - how many fuckin' more are there? - then an 11th and finally a 12th. Shocked. Utterly gutted. Dismayed for Humanity. This isn't the joy of seeing the multinational ISS briefly overhead with humans on board, this is the realisation that some American outfit has sold another American outfit the permission to vandalise my night sky - our night sky, for Musk's commercial enrichment.

    If you'd been out astro-imaging you could delete that 5 minutes of polluted footage and work with the filesize you already had, but if you're out and wondering at the night sky with just your thoughts and the Mk1 Eyeball then.. sigh!

    I'm profoundly dismayed at our loss.

  6. 96percentchimp

    I remember when this was all (star)fields

    I have great sympathy for the plight of the astronomers - particularly the amateurs who crontibute a lot to the field simply because they have a passion for it - mostly because Musk never bothered to ask - he just went a did it like the brilliant, arrogant cock that he is.

    All the same, if Musk and Bezos succeed in making space travel affordable (YMMV) then Starlink is going to pale into comparison over the next 50 years as the night is filled with microsats, manufacturing hubs, hotels and habitats. The next generation will see the skies change in the same way the postwar generation saw the countryside around big cities turn into suburbia.

    'Tis, perhaps, the inevitable price of something that may or may not fit your definition of progress.

  7. RLWatkins

    I'm reminded of Iain Banks' "Against a Dark Background"...

    ... in which one feature of their world was "junklight", the reflection of sunlight from billions of pieces of orbiting junk, which brightened the night sky.

    Then again, that one was a million light-years from the nearest star, so they didn't do a lot of astronomy. Here things are different.

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