Starlink versus Stargazers

Russ Atkinson
Russ joined Factory having completed his degree in Graphic Design at The Arts Institute at Bournemouth. Handling the rare combination of a mastery of both words and images, Russ lends his writing skills to his overarching responsibility for design and production scheduling. Russ loves building BMWs of both the 2 and 4 wheel variety.

With no more time on their hands than usual, unless they work night shifts and sneak out to get their fix – because they practice their art under cover of darkness – but with a noticeably clearer night sky because everyone is inside watching Netflix with the lights off and there are very few flights operating, the time really is now for stargazers.

By ‘now’, of course, we mean ‘last week, before the sky because slightly cloudy again as per the norm for April in the northern hemisphere’, but if you hadn’t noticed how clear the sky has been after dark then you’ve clearly been achieving too much during the daytime and going to bed far, far too early. Or drinking too much wine. We won’t judge.

With an almost perfectly clear sky overhead, many non-stargazers in our hemisphere have been desperately waiting for the stars to align, so to speak, holding out for a time when the sky is dark, clear and one of SpaceX’s ‘Starlink’ satellite chains is passing overhead. If you haven’t heard of the project yet, the rough plan is for SpaceX to put thousands of these satellites into orbit above earth to provide cost-effective, near-global satellite internet coverage by the end of 2021. Following another successful launch last week, there are currently around 400 Starlink satellites in orbit, and if you visit this website you can see when a group of them will next be passing overhead. They travel in chains, so are easily recognisable if you know what they are. If you don’t, however, then you’ll probably be converting to Scientology before you know it, convinced that the aliens are coming to your salvation.

More bad news for skeptics is that the Starlink project aims to make up for the 3% of Earth that can’t be covered using 5G transmitters, so if you were hoping to hide from the mind-controlling, immune-system crippling effects of 5G and have already stocked up on extra-thick Bacofoil then you’re shit out of luck because the satellites will be reading your thoughts instead. Maybe if you dig deep enough underground…

While this is all excellent news for global connectivity and should hopefully bring cost-effective and robust internet solutions to those in remote or less-developed countries, astronomers and other satellite operators are less excited about it all. The fear is that there’ll soon be more satellites visible than stars in the night sky with Starlink chains criss-crossing the sky like some kind of exospheric Scooby Doo chase scene, and given they’re able to autonomously alter their trajectory it’ll be near impossible to schedule observations around them. There have also been reports of these chains of satellites passing too closely with other satellites already in orbit, in contravention of guidelines that have been in place for years. It’s a tough line to walk; holding back scientific observations of the universe while accelerating the potential ability to eventually provide a communication link between Earth and Mars in the long-term. Because let’s not forget, that’s SpaceX top dog Elon Musk’s life mission.

Musk has promised that the next generation of Starlink satellites will be less noticeable, with the inclusion of sunshades, a lick of black paint underneath and changes to their solar panel angles, which should hopefully be a workable compromise.

Amateur stargazer and photographer Barry Trent recently posted this message on a Facebook group:

‘I’ve just remortgaged my home to make a once-in-a-lifetime trek to Antarctica to photograph the night sky without the effects of light pollution but no thanks to Elon Musk’s bloody satellites half of my photos look as if a child has stolen the Magic Pencil from ‘Words and Pictures’* and scrawled all over them – it’s a disgrace. I did manage to upload a couple of good ones to Instagram straight away though, there’s a really fast password-free wifi hotspot down here – couldn’t believe my luck!’

*If you weren’t being forced to watch this at school, then you probably weren’t educated any time between the 1970s and early 1990s, but check it out on YouTube anyway.