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SpaceX satellites keep wrecking images of comet NEOWISE

Comet NEOWISE seen in the night sky at Jaufenpass in South Tyrol, Itlay.
Comet NEOWISE seen in the night sky at Jaufenpass in South Tyrol, Itlay.
(Image: © © Martin Deja via Getty Images)

SpaceX satellites are ruining skywatchers' views (and photographs) of NEOWISE, the brightest comet in the Northern Hemisphere since the 1995-96 show of Hale-Bopp. 

Visible just above the horizon right now, the comet appears faint and small to the naked eye, but can be seen clearly through cameras with long, telephoto lenses. Usually, when photographers capture objects like this in the night sky they use long exposure times, leaving the camera aperture open to collect light over the course of several seconds. But now comet-chasers report that a new fleet of SpaceX's Starlink satellites is leaving bright smears across their NEOWISE snaps, as the shiny orbiters streak through their frames during long exposures. 

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This isn't the first time SpaceX has come under fire for these new sources of overhead light pollution. When the first satellites in the Starlink constellation, part of the company's plan to deliver internet access from orbit, launched in 2019, astronomers immediately raised concerns about their reflective properties. Telescopes, like consumer cameras, usually use long exposures in their scientific work. Starlink seems to be particularly reflective and to orbit at an elevation that can leave bright smears across telescope sensors and pollute data.

This image from a research program at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile was heavily polluted by Starlink trails soon after the first of these SpaceX satellites were launched in 2019.

This image from a research program at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile was heavily polluted by Starlink trails soon after the first of these SpaceX satellites were launched in 2019. (Image credit: Cliff Johnson/Clara Martínez-Vázquez/DELVE Survey)

 "When we develop new, big facilities, big observatories, big surveys to go and do things like discover hazardous asteroids, we design them to within an inch of their lives. We do so to make sure that every [risk] is accounted for," Alex Parker, a Colorado-based astronomer, told Live Science in May 2019. "This is one of those confounding factors that, generally speaking, we haven't prepared for because it hasn't been an issue up 'til now."

Parker told Live Science that the Starlink fleet, which could eventually number in the thousands, seems to be particularly inclined to shine brightly at night. (Currently, 422 Starlink satellites are in orbit.)

NEOWISE's appearance in the dawn sky has created a rush of interest in astrophotography, and with it a new batch of skywatchers disappointed to see their view of the universe obscured by Starlink's satellites in low-Earth orbit. 

SpaceX, which has not returned a request for comment, has said it's taking steps to reduce Starlink's light pollution. But, as of this writing, the bright streaks remain an issue.

Originally published on Live Science.