Space is a Crowded Place

Space satellites may soon have to be capable of parallel parking if it gets any more crowded. And it definitely WILL!

For so many missed celestial events between 2000 and 2020, I suffered lack of interest as an observer because we could not see much sky from home in a deep pocket in between ridges. That has changed since we moved. Seeing the coming and going of so many new-to-me objects now when I scan the constellations from our new big-sky home, I began to try and catch up with what I’ve missed. Sorry if this is old news to everyone else. Apologies for the video-dump below. So fire me. ¯\_(?)_/¯

This screenshot from Sky Safari app (on my phone yesterday morning, which makes the point that these space computers are up there, day and night, listening, watching, taking notes) gives you some idea of what a crowded place the heavens have become. (And btw, professional astronomers are not happy.)

Ariane is European; Iridium may be your phone data link, and SL is Starlink

FLASH(WAY)BACK: I am standing on my back steps watching Sputnik in disbelief that I am seeing a manmade star sliding silently against the heavens, imagining I could hear its haunting ping, claiming space for mankind—but mostly for Russia, our enemy du jour.

So with so many countries putting so many “smart-objects” in the sky at an accelerating pace, what is the so-what? Will a new satellite soon have to parallel-park to nudge into its own slot in the sky? And what are they doing up there anyways?

A big part of the answer to that question as far as the US has to do with it can learned by coming up to speed on SKYLINK, a project of SpaceX. And how I wish I’d been motivated and then able to witness this birthing from the mothership from our ridge-bound pasture in May, 2019. In the early hours, the payload of dozens of satellites would have revealed a straight line of bright spots through binoculars before each satellite moved into its programmed orbit. Unforgettable. But don’t grieve. Tens—hundreds of thousands more Skylink bright spots are planned.

This is not nearly granular enough to show the full mesh of Earth-orbiting satellites now, much less in ten years.

Rather than spouting all the interesting stats and facts about Skylink, I highly recommend watching this video to see how all the pieces of this project fit together and matter to data-users on the ground.

So where does this end? Is space the wild wild west to be won by the dude with the biggest purse? Remember: what goes up…

“In February 2019, a sister company of SpaceX, SpaceX Services Inc., filed a request with the FCC to receive a license for the operation of up to a million fixed satellite Earth stations that would communicate with its non-geostationary orbit (NGSO) satellite Starlink system.” ***

And while we’re here, consider the New Shepard-Blue Origin project—another twig of the same SpaceX program, whose proximate end is a soft precision landing on the moon, and ultimately, manned flight to Mars. And speaking of the Angry Red Planet: Yes, one more after the Blue Origin video.

Serving Suggestion: Watch 1) launch to separation (it takes only 4 minutes to reach this altitude) starting at 37 minutes in; and the deorbiting of the reusable launcher rocket and 2) its soft, precision-targeted landing starting at 43 minutes.

And lastly: Bloody Mars High-Def videos! Last time I watched footage from Mars only a year or two ago, the scene was rather bleak, flat and featureless, the optics and the mobility of the first rovers being very limited.

Not so the later missions that brought back this amazing 4K footage. The most striking feature to me is the obvious stratified water-deposited rock strata—and apparently the water is salty and there is a huge amount of it underground. Amazing new knowledge, indeed!

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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