Astronomers Worry That Elon Musk's New Satellites Will Ruin The View
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In late May, the commercial spaceflight company SpaceX launched a rocket.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three, two, one, zero. Ignition. Liftoff.
SHAPIRO: About an hour later, that rocket released 60 satellites.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They really are just slowly fanning out like a deck of cards into space.
SHAPIRO: The satellites are the first part of a massive constellation that will bring the Internet to every corner of the planet, and as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, it may forever change our view of the heavens.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Victoria Girgis does public education at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. And a couple of nights after SpaceX launched all those satellites, she saw them - a bunch of little dots moving into line across the sky.
VICTORIA GIRGIS: And they actually just crossed right in front of where the telescope was pointed.
BRUMFIEL: The telescope was a small one - Girgis uses it to show celestial objects to the observatory's guests. That night, she was trying to photograph some faint galaxies. The bright satellites created over two dozen streaks across the image.
GIRGIS: My first immediate reaction was that's visually kind of cool. But my second reaction was, man, you can't see a single galaxy.
BRUMFIEL: The picture was basically ruined. Now, Girgis wasn't the only one to notice this. In the days after the launch, images and videos began to pop up on social media. Jessie Christiansen is an astronomer at Caltech.
JESSIE CHRISTIANSEN: All of those videos and pictures delighted the public, but it horrified the astronomy community because it was like, wait, that's bad.
BRUMFIEL: Bad because professional astronomers are trying to take lots of pictures of really faint things far out in space. And believe it or not, none of them thought these satellites were going to be a problem.
CHRISTIANSEN: Nobody really realized until after launch that they were going to be so bright.
BRUMFIEL: But the satellites are bright. And here's the thing - SpaceX is just getting started. The company plans on launching a total of nearly 12,000 satellites to provide global Internet. Other companies, including Amazon, are planning similar constellations. Space is about to get much more crowded, and Christiansen says there's not a lot astronomers can do about it.
CHRISTIANSEN: Space is still a little bit of the Wild West, right? We're still working out who owns it and who gets to make the rules.
BRUMFIEL: In a statement, SpaceX says it expects the satellites to grow dimmer as they reach their final orbits. And it's looking into other ways to minimize the glare problem. That will help, Christiansen says, but she also thinks the night sky is about to undergo a very big change.
CHRISTIANSEN: I think with, you know, 12,000 low-Earth orbit bright satellites, now it'll be, like, hard to find the things that stay still. You're not going to see the same sky anymore. It'll be really interesting. It'll, you know, it'll be a cultural shift.
BRUMFIEL: On the bright side, we'll have good Internet.
CHRISTIANSEN: We will. And, you know, honestly, there's 10,000 astronomers in the world. We shouldn't stack up against the total sum of humanity, right? There are 7 billion people in the world. And the Internet is an incredible gift. It can be used for so much good.
BRUMFIEL: If SpaceX succeeds, that good will soon include cat videos anywhere on earth. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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