I loved astronomy as a kid. One of my favorite things about heading outside of the Cities is the clear, starry sky at night. So I have to admit, I do wonder what will happen to the night sky as humans keep launching satellites. So I was fascinated to read about what Bob King, a photographer from Duluth, was noticing.
Back in September I described a new 4G broadband satellite cellular service planned by AST SpaceMobile. At the time, their prototype unit, BlueWalker3 , orbited the Earth but had yet to unfold, the reason it was too faint for most casual skywatchers to track. That’s changed. On November 10, the company “unboxed” the satellite — basically a squash-court-sized antenna array — which greatly increased its surface area and therefore its capacity to reflect sunlight.
The very next night, the first reports trickled in, describing BlueWalker 3 as brighter than most stars. I’ve spent the past few evenings observing passes of the satellite from my driveway here in Duluth, Minnesota, and can confirm those observations. I’ve seen it now on three occasions. During each appearance it showed up on time and grew as bright as magnitude 1.3, equal to Deneb in the Northern Cross and very easy to see with the naked eye even through light cloud and moderate light pollution.
The satellite circles the planet in low-Earth orbit between 312 and 327 miles (508-527km) altitude or about 60-75 miles higher than the International Space Station. Why should you care? BlueWalker 3 is the predecessor of a new “constellation” of some 110 larger satellites (called BlueBirds) that will launch aboard SpaceX rockets in the next few years. The first five are slated for liftoff in late 2023 .
Being larger they’ll likely also be brighter. As skywatchers I think it’s important to know about any new project that adds more machines to the night sky so we can see what’s happening with informed eyes. Like most people I enjoy satellite-watching but fear we’ve reached a saturation point. There are now so many “moving lights” up there they distract from our appreciation of the wild essence of the night.
The author admits that we all want better broadband or a cellphone with coverage everywhere but he recommends contacting the FCC and requiring companies to find ways to lessen the impact of their bright and growing satellites.