SpaceX’s Starlink photobombed an ultra-rare meteor shower

A showdown between SpaceX and astronomy is brewing.

A SpaceX Starlink satellite unfolding.

Get out of the way, Starlink!

SpaceX’s internet connectivity satellite constellation became the unwanted star of the show on November 22, where several crafts left a trail across the night sky. A team at the La Palma observatory in the Canary Islands were watching for a series of alpha Monocerotid meteors, when their view was interrupted by a trail.

“It was a real eye-opener,” Bill Cooke, the lead of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office, told SpaceWeather when he saw the video. “This kind of thing could force us to change how we write software to auto-detect meteors.”

The team was waiting for a trail of meteors, as predicted by NASA forecasters Esko Lyytinen and Peter Jenniskens. The meteor shower in question has previously shown four outbusts in 1925, 1935, 1985 and 1995, making the view a spectacularly rare sight. The pair successfully predicted that the shower would occur at around 5 a.m. UTC, but the dust trail was less intense than expected.

Unfortunately, the observatory’s work was interrupted by a surprise visitor. SpaceX launched its first batch of 60 Starlink satellites back in May 2019, following up with a second batch on November 11. The researchers claim it was the second batch that left a trail across the sky.

This could become a larger issue in the future. SpaceX is planning to offer services to the United States and Canada next year, after six launches have been complete. After 24 launches the constellation is expected to offer global service, sometime in 2021. The company has applied for permission for a staggering 42,000 satellites in space, however — far more than the approximately 5,000 total satellites in space right now.

Watch the timelapse photo below, where around two minutes and 12 seconds in, Starlink blazes a trail that looks like a stream of bullets from an old arcade video game:

The University of Washington also provided this image that shows the trail across the sky:

Starlink trailing across the sky.
Starlink trailing across the sky.

Starlink vs astronomy: the showdown continues

When SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell was asked in an October interview how Starlink’s mega-constellation wouldn’t bump into other satellites, she responded by asking interviewer Ron Baron to imagine an Earth with just 30,000 people. This Earth, she reasoned, would be so empty that the chances of even finding another person would be pretty remote. Those Starlink satellites won’t have many friends, in short.

While the crafts are designed to autonomously maneuver around other crafts, firing their krypton-powered ion thrusters, they may still make themselves known in the skies.

The American Astronomical Society has already expressed its concerns. President Megan Donahue said in June that “I think it’s commendable and very impressive engineering to spread the information and opportunities made possible by internet access, but I, like many astronomers, am very worried about the future of these new bright satellites.”

The society itself also released a statement, noting that it “recognizes that outer space is an increasingly available resource with many possible uses. However, the potential for multiple large satellite constellations to adversely affect both each other and the study of the cosmos is becoming increasingly apparent, both in low Earth orbit and beyond.”

Just days after the initial constellation launch, star-gazers were spotting the crafts in their sights. One Dutch UFO website told The Guardian that it received over 150 reports of unidentified objects:

On November 18, astronomers operating a remote telescope also saw a trail of satellites in its vision. Clarae Martínez-Vázquez from the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory stated on Twitter that the disruption to her work was “not cool!”

CEO Elon Musk stated back in May that he’s asked his team to look into the issue:

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responding to concerns.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk responding to concerns.

The company later claimed in October that it would paint the Earth-facing base of the satellites black to lessen their impact, as well as work with the relevant bodies and adjust orbits to ensure they don’t disrupt work.

“We are certainly encouraging companies to design their satellites so that the Earth-facing surfaces are as faint as possible, but there are limits to what you can do,” Patrick Seitzer, an astronomer at the University of Michigan, told The Guardian. “If you paint them black, they absorb sunlight and they get hot and that damages the electronics.”

For now, the 120 non-test Starlink crafts in orbit could be set for another appearance in the near future.