The astronomer Ichi Tanaka, a researcher at the Subaru telescope, was astonished when he saw the image that the camera they have installed at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii had just captured. A spectacular blue and luminous spiral crossed the night sky: “That’s what I saw and it was an amazing event for me,” said Tanaka when the Subaru shared the video on social networks.
The unusual astronomical phenomenon did not have much of a mystery, as explained by scientists from the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan: “The spiral seems to be related to the launch of a new satellite by the SpaceX company.” Calculations they offered no doubts: He was just in the path of the latest launch from tycoon Elon Musk’s rocket company, when a Falcon 9 rocket sent a military GPS satellite into orbit.
That ornate shape, resembling a small galaxy, arises when the Falcon 9’s upper stage fans the remaining fuel during its long descent into the ocean. That piece of space junk “probably rotates on its longest axis to stabilize the orientation of the flight, hence the spiral shape,” SpaceWeather explained.
It is not the first time that leftover fuel has caused visual phenomena observable from several continents as space debris falls into Earth’s atmosphere. Spirals like the Hawaiian had been recorded from new zealand in june and in April from the same observatory. In addition, “space jellyfish” generated by the gases expelled during rocket launches have also been observed.
UFOs and Wi-Fi
All these phenomena are added to the trains and swarms of Starlink satellites, also from Musk, that aspire to turn the skies into a gigantic Wi-Fi network accessible almost anywhere on the planet, thanks to tens of thousands of devices in orbit. With all this equipment in the skies, it is not strange that the observation of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena has skyrocketed, according to an official report from the Pentagon.
It is more than an anecdote: that spiral in the skies of the most important observatory on the planet, the one located on the Hawaiian summit of Mauna Kea, is another stone in the shoe of astronomy. A pebbled shoe with the SpaceX logo on it. The space gold rush driven mainly by Musk’s company is blanketing the celestial vault with all sorts of gizmos and phenomena that are hellish noise for scientists trying to gather astronomical data. The International Astronomical Union is clear: “It is estimated that the traces of the satellite constellations will be bright enough to saturate the modern detectors of large telescopes.”
The latest to join the complaints has been the Vera Rubin Observatory, a very powerful (and very expensive, more than 400 million euros) telescope installed in Chile that will be released this year to carry out the largest stellar census in history. “The 400,000 recent and planned low Earth orbit satellites threaten the discovery potential of the census,” says an official work from the observatory. And he adds that they can be a systematic source of “false alerts.” “It is challenging for scientific data analysis, which adds significant effort and potentially limits discovery of the unexpected,” the report concludes.
“We are somewhere between very bad and terrible,” derisively laments astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “A few thousand satellites are a nuisance, but hundreds of thousands are an existential threat to terrestrial astronomy,” he summarized in statements to Scientific American. “The impact for astronomy is practically the beginning of the end of the night,” warned Didier Queloz, the Nobel Prize winner in Physics, “but the people who command these satellites don’t care: they have never spoken with astronomers, nor with the public”. “They are people commodifying heaven right now, they make money with it, and the consequence is that we are going to lose heaven,” Queloz said.
The US Government Accountability Office also published a report in September stating that this increase in space activity will cause orbital junk to multiply, polluting emissions into the upper atmosphere with unknown harmful effects and damage to the astronomy. “Satellites can reflect sunlight and transmit radio signals that obstruct observations of natural phenomena,” he concluded.
A few days ago, they published a collaboration agreement between SpaceX and the US National Science Foundation, which finances many of the most powerful astronomical projects. Elon Musk’s company, after years of ignoring the complaints of the world of astronomy and with all its projects going from strength to strength, is committed to trying to minimize the impact of its activities on research. Meanwhile, luminous spirals continue to appear over the observatories.
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