HYDERABAD: Clear, midnight blue, moonless and shimmering sky is any stargazer’s dream to capture perfect star trails and astronomic observations. For the last few years, light pollution has been a problem for stargazers. But now, it is the mega-constellations of the internet-providing spacecrafts by conglomerates that are photobombing astrophotographs.
It was a perfect sky when Upendra Pinnelli, an astronomy enthusiast from Miyapur, was trying to frame the Horsehead Nebula and the Flame Nebula located in the Orion constellation — nearly 1,380 light years (55 trillion kilometres) away from the Earth. “I was optimistic after snapping around 300 high-exposure images for over two hours followed by the drudgery of image processing (combining). But, the results were disappointing. The final photograph was streaked with white lines,” he says. Upendra’s image was ruined by Elon Musk-owned SpaceX’s Starlink satellite trains.
Praveen Suryavanshi, an astronomy educator for Navars Edutech, also witnessed something similar with his naked eye from Jadcherla while conducting an outreach programme. “It was a train of Starlink satellites moving past the night sky. These satellites are reflecting the sunlight after sunset, giving them a distinctive bright white appearance in the dead of night,” Praveen observes.
He adds, “On any given night, we can see 40 or more satellites. But since Starlink launched its first batch of satellites in May 2019, the frequency of satellite sightings have exploded across the world. This apart, Starlink proposes to have 42,000 such satellites shortly — which is nearly six times more than the current total number of active satellites in the low-Earth orbit.”
Setting up the equipment and planning a shot is a painstaking process. The astrophotographers and stargazers are worried about the impact these satellites will have on the Milky Way season which begins in March. “A lot of people will photograph the Milky Way and because of its high ‘field of view’, we will have to cover almost 90 degrees of the sky. When such a large area of the sky is photographed for hours and stacked upon, these satellites will prove to be a huge difficulty,” says Praveen.
According to Upendra, it is possible to remove these satellites by selecting images frame-by-frame, wherein a satellite does not reflect the light. No matter what, traces will remain in the final image. “Starlink had tried to reduce the visibility of their satellites by coating them with black paint. But it ran into some problems, and since then, it has added a visor to shield the solar panels from reflecting sunlight,” notes Dr. G Sidharth Burra, former director of BM Birla Science Centre.
Speaking about the future of land-based astronomy, Sidharth says, it could also help protect solar panels as they can be quite fragile. But in the end, it would still be occult and could prove to be a nuisance.