More satellites than stars

Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, along with a few other companies, are planning to put 12,000 new satellites into low Earth orbit over the next few years. (Photo by Daniel Oberhaus)

You’ve probably heard the news: Elon Musk’s SpaceX company has just orbited 60 near-Earth satellites in a single launch. And he, along with a few other companies, are planning to put 12,000 new satellites into low Earth orbit over the next few years.

This brings up all sorts of issues and problems. Given that there are only 6,000 naked-eye stars, even including the very faintest seen over rural areas, we will soon have more satellites than stars. And, unlike our existing communications satellites that are parked in geostationary orbits all the way up at 22,300 miles and are utterly invisible, these will definitely appear in the sky.


Some may be bothered by all that sudden new electromagnetic radiation continually beamed into them so that they can have continuous Internet, which is the purpose of this whole thing. Others are already objecting to the sky being despoiled. And professional astronomers are appalled to realize that their long-exposure images of the distant universe will reliably have bright streaks crossing them, with their images seeming like viewing the heavens through prison bars.

Hopefully there will be a major international outcry that somehow stops this from moving forward. It’s a long way from completion. We suddenly have 60 Space-X Starlink satellites, which means that Elon Musk is still 11,940 satellites short of his final configuration. But, lest things seem too gloomy, here’s another bit of good news:

These satellites, like all others in low Earth orbit, can only be seen when it’s nighttime down here below; but the satellite is standing in sunlight, which only occurs during the first hour after nightfall and then again during that same timeframe before dawn. So, they are invisible during 75 percent of the night. They’re mostly seen during the darker sections of twilight, both at dawn and dusk.

Indeed, just for fun, look for them some clear evening at that time, this week. Now that we’re near the Solstice, when our axis most tilts sunward, you’ll see one crossing the sky every minute or two. If it’s a slow-moving point of light, but doesn’t have flashing red and green lights indicating an aircraft, it’s either a satellite or a UFO mothership.

More good news: During the cold half of the year, even the late-twilight visibility of satellites vanishes, so that they’re really not visible at all. So maybe we can adapt to this whole thing.

Want to know more? To read Bob’s previous columns, click here. Check out Bob’s podcast, Astounding Universe, co-hosted by Pulse of the Planet’s Jim Metzner.