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Bright Line Is String of 50+ Satellites

A unique yet conflicting experience under the stars occurred Sunday while many football fans were inside watching the big game. I had brought a telescope to a Super Bowl party, even though some fans were more interested in seeing new TV commercials debut than in seeing a comet.

Around 7:38 pm, with many stars visible in the clear sky and brilliant Venus setting toward the western horizon, I finished observing Jupiter and its four visible moons. As I slewed the telescope to target Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF), conveniently located near Mars overhead, a long blazing line rose from the western horizon to the right of the giant planet Jupiter.

Clearly, a string of recently-launched Starlink satellites was going to pass nearly overhead, and by sheer serendipity I was positioned to witness the spectacle. One could readily see the respective pinpoints from 50-plus individual satellites making the collective line. My photographs were 3-second exposures, so the shiny points smeared into one extended streak.

As the uniformly bright string of pearls entered into the earth's shadow, their respective brightness dimmed. The entire cluster just experienced sunset, then cruised into the shadow of earth.

A repeat sighting was possible the following night. You can track Starlink satellites live or get predictions of passes at Find Starlink and Heavens-Above. I saw Starlink 71 (G5-4) which had launched earlier in the day.

To be clear, I have disdain for the bright fleet of commercial satellites that impinge upon astronomical observing, imaging, and research, yet I was admittedly enthralled watching the string soar high overhead. I imagine it akin to the novelty of watching Sputnik pass overhead in 1958.

When an earlier fleet of Iridium satellites existed, I treated their predictable trait as a parlor game. At a given time in a given direction, one could watch a satellite "flare". Occasionally the sun would reflect off the surface of a rotating Iridium satellite, appearing to earthlings as a star-like burst of light. Knowing the predicted location in the sky and time of the flare (again, courtesy of Chris Peat of Heavens-Above), I would affirm that "you have the power to conjure up an apparition in the sky...Hum louder!" Sure enough, the flare arrived as predicted.

Starlink loses its appeal, however, when I consider the sheer numbers zipping across the night sky. SpaceX has applied for permission to launch tens of thousands of Starlink satellites, and other companies are competing with their own global networks, too. Yikes!

We're crossing a waypoint in the history of stargazing. Look up soon, for the night skies will never be the same.


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