People have always looked at the stars. Early humans made cave drawings of constellations, early explorers used their patterns to navigate the high seas, and today we study their light in hopes of learning more about the beginning of the universe. The launch of the latest group of satellites by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is catching the attention of the Kiwis below. reports Kate Green.
There’s a new string of lights in the night sky, spotted by Kiwis across the country, as the latest cluster of Starlink satellites pass overhead.
The latest group of satellites, the brainchild of Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, launched on Tuesday, January 18 at 9:02 p.m. EST, when 49 launched into low Earth orbit from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
SpaceX’s initial goal is to have 12,000 in orbit, six times more than there are currently, and the company was currently seeking approval to launch up to 42,000.
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Nelson-based rocket scientist Dr Duncan Steel said the most recently launched satellites were always “the best to see because it’s the most compact string”.
Dr. Duncan Steel, Xerra Earth Observation Institute
Each group of satellites begins as a chain and then expands to form a full orbit, with thousands of satellites enveloping the Earth.
From horizon to horizon, a satellite takes about 5 minutes to cross the sky, and a channel takes longer. “It looks like a pearl necklace.”
By connecting a small Starlink antenna to a building, the surrounding area could be connected to the rest of the globe by communicating with these bright points of light.
Other forms of internet delivered by underground cables, such as fiber, offer better speeds, but the infrastructure is slow and expensive to install.
“Each launch occupies a particular aircraft,” Steel said. “The idea is to give the Internet to the whole world.”
However, international media reported on February 10 that up to 40 of the last satellites are expected to fall out of orbit after bad timing launched them directly into a solar storm.
There are currently 2,000 satellites in orbit, “like a ball of string all around the earth”. A new channel took two to three weeks to spread across the sky.
Each satellite was about the size of a table – 2 meters by 1 meter – with a mass of 230 kilograms, traveling at 7.5 km per second, at a height of 540 km above the Earth. “It’s actually surprising that they’re so bright,” Steel said. “That’s because there’s not much in the background – just the distant stars.”
SpaceX did not reveal the cost to manufacture the satellites, but SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said it was less than $1 million each.
The satellites remained roughly in the same orbit, but Earth’s position shifted below, so astronomers wouldn’t always see the same ones. Each satellite should be replaced after about five years.
Satellite internet can be slow, due to the distance the signal has to cover, making video or gaming extremely slow. To solve this problem, Starlink satellites have lower orbits than traditional satellites – which is why they appear so bright in the night sky.
SpaceX had tried painting its satellites black to minimize light pollution, but because dark colors trap heat, it wasn’t a resounding success, Steel said.
But the number of satellites needed to facilitate global coverage worries many scientists. Space is totally unregulated – the only permission needed to put satellites in space comes from the country of launch. Steel referred to low Earth orbit as “the wild west”.
Hugh Lewis, head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton, told Space.com that Starlink satellites were already responsible for more than half of close encounters in orbit.
Kiwi astronomer Alan Gilmore said it raises questions about the use of space. “Musk says, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of room up there, but there’s no more – no more in lower Earth orbit. “”
Gilmore’s own job was to track discoveries of near-Earth objects made by space programs in Arizona and Hawaii, which signaled that satellites were a troublesome presence in the sky.
For people who preferred pristine dark skies, however, the question had to be asked; is all this really necessary?
Gilmore wondered that too. “Mobile internet is doing pretty well in a lot of places,” he said. “Africa has skipped telephone wires and only uses cell phones.”
Satellites are said to be a game-changer in Tonga, after an earthquake and tsunami cut communications with the islands.
Sightings of the new channel have been common in New Zealand since its launch. Summer was a good time to spot objects in low Earth orbit, as the sun’s low angle meant they were illuminated for longer. Orbiting objects are normally visible for a few hours after sunset and a few hours before sunrise.
People could track the location of satellites, as well as the best time to spot them from their location, on the website Heavens above.
Beta testing of the service in New Zealand began in March 2021, and a limited number of people in each region were able to register online to be part of the trial – first come, first served.
New Zealand Telecommunications Forum chief executive Paul Brislen said satellite internet would be “vitally important” for those who live in hard-to-reach places thanks to the earth’s rippled topography – a problem existing for New Zealanders.
“It sends a signal out to the satellite, sends it back to an earth station, back up to the satellite and back to the client.”
But the beta would not be for everyone. For the cost of around $1000, “you get a box of bits”. As Starlink is not a member of the industry dispute resolution service, customer support may be limited. The network is expected to exit beta mode within the next two years.