Editor’s Report: Navigating the New Night Sky

Stargazing seems to become more difficult with each passing decade

Things to come: Menacing streaks of light from a flock of SpaceX Starlink satellites obscure this Lowell Observatory view of the NGC5353/4 galaxy group.

Things to come: Menacing streaks of light from a flock of SpaceX Starlink satellites obscure this Lowell Observatory view of the NGC5353/4 galaxy group. Courtesy: Victoria Girgis/Lowell Observatory

As an avid amateur astronomer, I found last May’s launch of the first batch of SpaceX Starlink satellites to be an emotional roller-coaster ride. At first, I was excited to read about a string of 60 bright satellites drifting across the sky in tight formation. How cool is that? But later, when I discovered the endgame is to have 12,000 of these objects buzzing around earth by 2025, my heart sank. What would this mean for those of us who enjoy the beauty of a starry night? How would the efforts of research astronomers be affected? The proposed mega constellation of satellites is just the latest in a seemingly never-ending succession of hurdles stargazers must clear.

I was a fortunate child. I grew up in a small town in the southern interior of British Columbia—a place where street lighting was unknown. on clear summer nights, I could lie on the front lawn and soak up the starlight while marvelling at the grand glowing band of the Milky Way arching from horizon to horizon. It was heaven.

Yet even in the 1960s—when I was a kid—such a pristine nocturnal experience was becoming rare. Families were gradually migrating to cities, and as those cities expanded to accommodate the new arrivals, tentacles of street illumination claimed more and more of the surrounding countryside.

Eventually, for most observers, a rewarding session under the stars required packing up the car and driving an hour or more out of town. the situation has only gotten worse, and if the Jevons paradox holds true (see this space in the March/April 2019 issue), the trend will worsen.

In the past few years, we “naturalists of the night” have been dealt a new setback. As Terence Dickinson noted in the March/April 2018 issue (page 46), smoke from out-of-control wildfires has become the latest obstacle for astro-enthusiasts.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the weather was the only thing I worried about when I packed the car before setting off to my favourite star party. A week ahead of the appointed date, I’d anxiously scan the latest forecasts to learn what the prospects for clear skies might be. Today, I also have to consult a smoke forecast. Sadly, the smokiest season is summer, which, of course, coincides with the best stargazing weather.

Let’s face it—if the air were filled with smoke in the dead of winter, few of us would complain. But summer? That’s our prime observing window! And like light pollution, the wildfire smoke is likely to get worse in the coming years.

The twin torments of light and smoke are why the prospect of being menaced by a swarm of new satellites is so deeply frustrating. And you have to know SpaceX won’t be the only company looking for a way to profit from low Earth orbit. It’s enough to make me shake my fist at the sky and yell, “Enough, already!”

You’re probably thinking this is the part of my editorial where I describe the silver lining in all this. That’s a tall order, but here goes…

First, there’s been some pushback to the SpaceX scheme, from both professional and amateur astronomers. Future versions of the satellites might not be as reflective (and, therefore, as troublesome) as the first bunch. Second, and perhaps more important, we’re an adaptable bunch. When light pollution became a significant problem, light pollution filters appeared on the market and we carried on.

As more and more stargazers sought to escape city lights, annual star parties became increasingly popular. Strange as it may seem, without light pollution, it’s unlikely most of us would experience the wonders of the universe in the company of like-minded enthusiasts. Astrophotographers have embraced the virtues of narrowband imaging and are now producing deep-sky shots from locations as blindingly illuminated as downtown Vancouver and Toronto—a feat no one would have bothered to attempt until recently.

I don’t know exactly how we skywatchers will manage to escape smoky skies or find a way to avoid the satellite menace that may lie ahead, but I do know this: If the flame of curiosity and wonder burns bright enough, it can never be fully extinguished.

We’ll figure it out. We always do.

By Gary Seronik

Categories: Editor's Report
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