Link Me Up, Elon!

By this time, you’ve likely heard about the SpaceX Starlink satellites, if only due to the great concern being voiced by both professional and amateur astronomers that the night sky will never be the same. Over the next decade, Starlink plans to launch 12,000 satellites into low Earth orbit for the purpose of providing high-speed internet everywhere on Earth. That’s great news for those of us in rural areas like Socorro, New Mexico, who deal with incredibly poor internet service, but not-so-great news for those of us who observe the night sky.

Video of Starlink satellites from one of the first launches, taken by MROI staff member Dylan Etscorn. Click on the image to play the video.

Currently, there are 2,666 operational satellites orbiting the Earth (Union of Concerned Citizens). Anyone who has watched the night sky for long has likely seen a satellite or two passing overhead, and those of us who image the night sky will occasionally capture the streak of a satellite as it passes through the field of view. With an additional 12,000 satellites in orbit, the chances of a satellite photo-bombing one’s image increases dramatically. Add to that another 30,000 satellites, which SpaceX is in the process of getting approval for, and one begins to wonder if it will be possible to take an image without a satellite passing through. SpaceX/Starlink founder Elon Musk isn’t overly concerned with this prospect, as he is reported to be of the opinion that all astronomical observing should be done by orbiting telescopes anyway. Yo, love your forward thinking, dude! Can my beloved Takahashi refractor hitch a ride on one of your satellites by any chance?

Moreover, SpaceX isn’t the only company chasing the golden goose of providing global high-speed internet via satellites; OneWeb Satellites plans to deploy up to 900 satellites into low Earth orbit with the same goal, and Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is developing Project Kuiper, a constellation of 3,236 satellites for high-speed broadband connectivity. It could get pretty crowded up there!

SpaceX addressed the concern of Starlink satellites ruining astronomical imaging early on by using an experimental coating on one of the satellites to reduce its reflectivity, and a deployable sun visor on another satellite to block sunlight from reflecting off the antenna surfaces. All 58 satellites of the next batch, whose launch window starts tomorrow, August 7 at about 1 AM EDT, are equipped with the sun visor. Musk has shown at least some level of sensitivity to the concerns of the astronomical community about the negative impact that thousands of shiny satellites swarming above us will have on Earth-based observations.

At this point there are 538 Starlink satellites in orbit, soon to be 596 if tomorrow’s scheduled launch takes place as planned. This number is enough for Starlink to offer a beta version of its internet connectivity to the USA and Canada before the end of this year. Of course I signed up immediately upon hearing this news, but unfortunately the service will be only available to higher latitude locations in the US. You can sign up to be a beta tester on their website.

If you’re interested in trying to catch a glimpse of Starlink satellites, refer to the website Heavens Above. Here you can find visibility details on all of the satellites from all of the launches calculated for your location. The most interesting time to view them is within the first few days of launch, as they are still close together and appear as a string of lights in motion rather than a single point of light, as in the video above.

Love ’em or hate ’em, it looks like Starlink satellites are here to stay. While I might get a little cranky when I have to throw out a perfectly good astrophoto due to some unsightly streaks of unwanted light, the prospect of affordable high-speed internet availability is awfully appealing!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications

They’re On Their Way Home!

If the weather down here on Earth cooperates tomorrow, the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavor spacecraft will undock from the International Space Station (ISS) and take its fiery plunge through our atmosphere to splash down in the Atlantic Ocean on Sunday afternoon.

SpaceX has been sending cargo to and from the ISS since 2012, with over 20 missions successfully completed. However, SpaceX Crew Dragon made history on May 30th of this year when it became the first commercial spacecraft to carry humans to the ISS. During NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley’s two month stay aboard the ISS, they performed numerous scientific experiments, not the least of which was the successful completion of the first test flight, SpaceX Demo-2, for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP). Through the CCP initiative, NASA appointed Boeing and SpaceX to develop spacecraft capable of transporting astronauts to and from the Space Station. SpaceX won this particular space race, developing Crew Dragon in six years.

Successfully launching Crew Dragon into space and docking with the Space Station was just the first phase of the Demo-2 test flight; undocking from the ISS and returning the crew safely back to Earth is the next critical phase of this test mission. But all is expected to go well; Crew Dragon is a new breed of smart spacecraft that is able to operate completely autonomously as well as be manually controlled by its crew. Want to get a sense of what it would be like to manually dock with the ISS? SpaceX has a very entertaining simulator on their website where you can take control of Crew Dragon.

While there are only two astronauts on this Demo-2 flight, the Dragon vehicle is capable of transporting up to seven passengers into and out of Earth orbit. The expectation is that at some point in the not-too-distant future, the Dragon spacecraft will carry not only astronauts but private passengers into Earth orbit, with the eventual lofty goal of transporting humans to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Dream on, Elon!

Transporting passengers into space is not the only line of space travel SpaceX has going on.  Do you have a payload you need delivered into orbit? Then the SpaceX Ride Share program may be for you! Prices start as low as a cool million to propel your payload of up to 200kg into space – such a bargain! You can even make your reservation online on the SpaceX website.

NASA will be providing live coverage of all Demo-2 test flight activities before, during, and after its return from the ISS. Currently the undocking of the Dragon “Endeavor” spacecraft from the ISS is set for 7:34 PM EDT on Saturday, August 1. If this schedule holds, splashdown will be at 2:42 PM EDT on August 2. History will once again be made as the first commercially built spacecraft returns humans from the Space Station to Earth. Please refer to this website for full coverage of the weekend’s events.

For those of us who enjoy “spotting the station”, tonight may well be our last chance to watch the ISS pass overhead with the Dragon Endeavor space vehicle still docked. It just so happens that there is a pass visible tonight at our location at the Etscorn Campus Observatory in Socorro, NM. While it will be a relatively short pass, the pass occurs not too far from Comet NEOWISE, which has all but faded from view. If you are in the local area, you can refer to the charts below for time and location information. If you are located elsewhere, you can visit Heavens Above and enter your location to see if there is a visible pass in your area as well.

Eyes to the skies!

M. Colleen Gino, MRO Assistant Director of Outreach and Communications