Musk’s bright lights masking the night

Several lines despoiled every photograph I took over 90 minutes, each created by a Starlink...
Several lines despoiled every photograph I took over 90 minutes, each created by a Starlink constellation of satellites. Image: Ian Griffin
There’s a fascinating episode of Star Trek’s original series, "The Tholian Web''.In that particular instalment of arguably the greatest science fiction series, a race of aliens sought to entomb the crew of the Starship Enterprise inside an energy vortex that crisscrossed the sky with evil intent. An image of the Enterprise inside a laser matrix was burned forever in my youthful memory.

This Star Trek plotline came to mind during a recent evening when I was trying to photograph Comet Pons-Brooks from a "dark sky" observing spot close to Dunedin.

The comet was only visible for a few hours after sunset. I drove to a favoured location atop Strath Taieri, set up my telescopes and cameras, and began photographing the comet.

Imagine my horror when several lines despoiled every photograph I took over 90 minutes. Each line was created by an artificial satellite, part of the Starlink constellation of satellites launched by Elon Musk’s company Starlink.

The media, perhaps dazzled by Musk’s wealth and evident brilliance, forever speaks to Starlink’s virtues. We hear how Starlink connects people within war zones and allows scientists in the Antarctic to talk to their loved ones when on assignment. We hear it will help us during "emergencies" starting next year here in New Zealand, and our phone networks will become more resilient. Yet we don’t seem to question whether launching an array of tens of thousands of satellites that have to be replaced when they re-enter the atmosphere and are easily visible for hours after dusk or before dawn is good for another connection — that with the night sky.

As an observer, I can tell you that the night sky has changed dramatically over the past five years, and none of us here in New Zealand has had a say in whether that change was a good thing. Across the planet, regions proudly declare themselves "dark sky", yet fundamentally, the sky is no longer dark. Thanks to satellite constellations like Starlink, our view of the heavens is changing; to my mind, this isn’t a good thing.

Satellite constellations make me feel sad for the future.