Samantha Lawler lives in the small village of Edenwold, Sask. It’s “a place that’s so dark that I can walk out my back door and see the Milky Way,” she said.
But that deep darkness won’t last, as companies like SpaceX’s Starlink and Amazon’s Project Kuiper proceed with plans to launch tens of thousands of satellites into orbit, forming “mega-constellations” of satellites.
She knows exactly what that could look like, because she’s been working on simulations of satellites in the night sky.
“Every night I can see probably a few satellites in a few-minute period. And I know that’s going to increase a lot,” Lawler, an assistant professor of astronomy at the University of Regina, told As It Happens host Carol Off.
Her model relies on the planned or actual orbits of 65,000 satellites from four major companies: Starlink, Project Kuiper, OneWeb and StarNet/GW. The majority of these satellites have not yet been launched, but there are already nearly 4,000 operational satellites in orbit, Lawler noted.
“According to our simulations, which take into account the brightness of satellites reflecting sunlight and the orbits that these companies want to use, I predict that there will be a couple of hundred satellites visible at any time during the summer in my night sky and within a couple hours of sunrise and sunset all year long,” she said.
The companies filed plans with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and the International Telecommunications Union that detail the angles of the orbits and how many satellites would be on each orbit. As a result, Lawler and her colleagues are able to predict where the satellites will be in the sky as viewed from different locations on Earth at different times of year, and estimate how much light they’ll reflect.
They relied on observations of existing Skylink satellites at the Plaskett Telescope in Victoria, B.C. to help calibrate their model.
“We really wanted to make sure that our model is applicable to Canada. We want to know what’s going to happen to our skies,” she said.
According to her research, people living along 50 degrees of latitude north and south will be most affected by visible satellites and other night sky light pollution. The north latitude line runs across some Canadian cities including Vancouver, Winnipeg and Calgary.
If 65,000 satellites are launched into space and the industry isn’t regulated, the could drown out the light from actual stars, of which we can usually only see a few thousand with the naked eye, she said.
“If you have a couple hundred satellites [visible] at all times, that means that one out of every 15 points in the sky will actually be moving. It’ll be very disorienting,” said Lawler.
Making satellites fainter
So many moving visible satellites pose enormous challenges for research, to say nothing of the amount of pollution they’ll cause, said Lawler.
Some of them “will completely die in orbit and then they’ll just become space junk,” while others will burn up in the upper atmosphere, she explained. She noted that they’re mostly made of aluminum, and that we have no information on what such a large increase of burning aluminum will do the upper atmosphere.
WATCH | What a future with a sky full of satellite mega-constellations could look like
Lawler said that instead of launching their own satellites to support their respective internet services, companies should be forced to share infrastructure, whether by government action or other forms of regulation. Failing that, they could at least be forced to ensure their devices don’t reflect so much light.
“There are fantastic engineers who work for all of these companies, but right now they have absolutely no incentive to make their satellites fainter, so they’re not doing it,” said Lawler. “Starlink, to their credit, has tried. They put a tiny bit of effort into making their satellites a little bit fainter, but they’re still very much naked-eye visible.”
Lawler says that governments must push forward legislation at a federal level, but she also notes that consumers do have some power.
“If you have another option for good internet, don’t buy satellite internet. If … satellite internet is the only the only option that you have, tell your company, tell your provider that you care about the night sky, that it’s important to you that they put effort into engineering their satellites to be fainter,” she said.
She also notes that putting pressure on local governments can be effective too.
“A lot of the lack of internet infrastructure in rural places is from many years of neglect by local governments, by provincial governments. If we pressure our governments into investing more in alternate forms of … internet [access], then there wouldn’t be so much demand for this.”
Written by Andrea Bellemare. Interview produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.
Are the northern lights caused by 'particles from the Sun'? Not exactly – Phys.org
What a spectacle a big aurora is, its shimmering curtains and colorful rays of light illuminating a dark sky. Many people refer to aurora as the northern lights (the aurora borealis), but there are southern lights too (the aurora australis). Either way, if you’re lucky enough to catch a glimpse of this phenomenon, it’s something you won’t soon forget.
The aurora is often explained simply as “particles from the Sun” hitting our atmosphere. But that’s not technically accurate except in a few limited cases. So what does happen to create this natural marvel?
We see the aurora when energetic charged particles—electrons and sometimes ions—collide with atoms in the upper atmosphere. While the aurora often follows explosive events on the Sun, it’s not quite true to say these energetic particles that cause the aurora come from the Sun.
Earth’s magnetism, the force that directs the compass needle, dominates the motions of electrically charged particles in space around Earth. The magnetic field near the surface of Earth is normally steady, but its strength and direction fluctuate when there are displays of the aurora. These fluctuations are caused by what’s called a magnetic substorm—a rapid disturbance in the magnetic field in near-Earth space.
To understand what happens to trigger a substorm, we first need to learn about plasma. Plasma is a gas in which a significant number of the atoms have been broken into ions and electrons. The gas of the uppermost regions of Earth’s atmosphere is in the plasma state, as is the gas that makes up the Sun and other stars. A gas of plasma flows away continuously from the Sun: this is called the solar wind.
Plasma behaves differently from those gases we meet in everyday life. Wave a magnet around in your kitchen and nothing much happens. The air of the kitchen consists overwhelmingly of electrically neutral atoms, so it’s quite undisturbed by the moving magnet. In a plasma, however, with its electrically charged particles, things are different. So if your house was filled with plasma, waving a magnet around would make the air move.
When solar wind plasma arrives at the earth it interacts with the planet’s magnetic field (as illustrated below—the magnetic field is represented by the lines that look a bit like a spider). Most of the time, plasma travels easily along the lines of the magnetic field, but not across them. This means that solar wind arriving at Earth is diverted around the planet and kept away from the Earth’s atmosphere. In turn, the solar wind drags the field lines out into the elongated form seen on the night side, called the magnetotail.
Sometimes moving plasma brings magnetic fields from different regions together, causing a local breakdown in the pattern of magnetic field lines. This phenomenon, called magnetic reconnection, heralds a new magnetic configuration, and, importantly, unleashes a huge amount of energy.
These events happen fairly often in the Sun’s outer atmosphere, causing an explosive energy release and pushing clouds of magnetized gas, called coronal mass ejections, away from the Sun (as seen in the image above).
If a coronal mass ejection arrives at Earth it can in turn trigger reconnection in the magnetotail, releasing energy that drives electrical currents in near-Earth space: the substorm. Strong electric fields that develop in this process accelerate electrons to high energies. Some of these electrons may have come from the solar wind, allowed into near-Earth space by reconnection, but their acceleration in the substorm is essential to their role in the aurora.
These particles are then funneled by the magnetic field towards the atmosphere high above the polar regions. There they collide with the oxygen and nitrogen atoms, exciting them to glow as the aurora.
Now you know exactly what causes the northern lights, how do you optimize your chances of seeing it? Seek out dark skies far from cities and towns. The further north you can go the better but you don’t need to be in the Arctic Circle. We see them from time to time in Scotland, and they’ve even been spotted in the north of England—although they’re still better seen at higher latitudes.
Websites such as AuroraWatch UK can tell you when it’s worth heading outside. And remember that while events on the Sun can give us a few days warning, these are indicative, not foolproof. Perhaps part of the magic lies in the fact that you need a little bit of luck to see the aurora in all its glory.
Are the northern lights caused by ‘particles from the Sun’? Not exactly (2022, January 21)
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Hubble telescope spots a black hole fostering baby stars in a dwarf galaxy – Space.com
Black holes can not only rip stars apart, but they can also trigger star formation, as scientists have now seen in a nearby dwarf galaxy.
At the centers of most, if not all, large galaxies are supermassive black holes with masses that are millions to billions of times that of Earth’s sun. For instance, at the heart of our Milky Way galaxy lies Sagittarius A*, which is about 4.5 million solar masses in size.
Astronomers have previously seen giant black holes shred apart stars. However, researchers have also detected supermassive black holes generating powerful outflows that can feed the dense clouds from which stars are born.
Black hole-driven star formation was previously seen in large galaxies, but the evidence for such activity in dwarf galaxies was scarce. Dwarf galaxies are roughly analogous to what newborn galaxies may have looked like soon after the dawn of the universe, so investigating how supermassive black holes in dwarf galaxies can spark the birth of stars may in turn offer “a glimpse of how young galaxies in the early universe formed a portion of their stars,” study lead author Zachary Schutte, an astrophysicist at Montana State University in Bozeman, told Space.com.
In a new study, the scientists investigated the dwarf galaxy Henize 2-10, located about 34 million light-years from Earth in the southern constellation Pyxis. Recent estimates suggest the dwarf galaxy has a mass about 10 billion times that of the sun. (In contrast, the Milky Way has a mass of about 1.5 trillion solar masses.)
A decade ago, study senior author Amy Reines at Montana State University discovered radio and X-ray emissions from Henize 2-10 that suggested the dwarf galaxy’s core hosted a black hole about 3 million solar masses in size. However, other astronomers suggested this radiation may instead have come from the remnant of a star explosion known as a supernova.
In the new study, the researchers focused on a tendril of gas from the heart of Henize 2-10 about 490 light-years long, in which electrically charged ionized gas is flowing as fast as 1.1 million mph (1.8 million kph). This outflow was connected like an umbilical cord to a bright stellar nursery about 230 light-years from Henize 2-10’s core.
This outflow slammed into the dense gas of the stellar nursery like a garden hose spewing onto a pile of dirt, leading water to spread outward. The researchers found newborn star clusters about 4 million years old and upwards of 100,000 times the mass of the sun dotted the path of the outflow’s spread, Schutte said.
With the help of high-resolution images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the scientists detected a corkscrew-like pattern in the speed of the gas in the outflow. Their computer models suggested this was likely due to the precessing, or wobbling, of a black hole. Since a supernova remnant would not cause such a pattern, this suggests that Henize 2-10’s core does indeed host a black hole.
“Before our work, supermassive black hole-enhanced star formation had only been seen in much larger galaxies,” Schutte said.
In the future, the researchers would like to investigate more dwarf galaxies with similar black hole-triggered star formation. However, this is difficult for many reasons — “systems like Henize 2-10 are not common; obtaining high quality observations is difficult; and so on,” Schutte said. However, when the James Webb Space Telescope hopefully comes online in the near future, “we will have new tools to search for these systems,” he noted.
Schutte and Reines detailed their findings in the Jan. 19 issue of the journal Nature.
Massive Iceberg Released Over 150 Billion Tons of Fresh Water Into Ocean As It Scraped Past South Georgia – SciTechDaily
Scientists monitoring the giant A68A Antarctic iceberg from space reveal that a huge amount of fresh water was released as it melted around the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia.
152 billion tonnes of fresh water – equivalent to 20 x Loch Ness or 61 million Olympic sized swimming pools, entered the seas around the sub-Antarctic island of South Georgia when the megaberg A68A melted over 3 months in 2020/2021, according to a new study.
In July 2017, the A68A iceberg snapped off the Larsen-C Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula and began its epic 3.5 year, 4000 km journey across the Southern Ocean. At 5719 square kilometers in extent – quarter the size of Wales –, it was the biggest iceberg on Earth when it formed and the sixth largest on record. Around Christmas 2020, the berg received widespread attention as it drifted worryingly close to South Georgia, raising concerns it could harm the island’s fragile ecosystem.
Researchers from the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) and British Antarctic Survey (BAS) used satellite measurements to chart the A68A iceberg’s area and thickness change throughout its life cycle. The authors show that the berg had melted enough as it drifted to avoid damaging the sea floor around South Georgia by running aground. However, a side effect of the melting was the release of a colossal 152 billion tonnes of fresh water in close proximity to the island – a disturbance that could have a profound impact on the island’s marine habitat.
For the first two years of its life, A68A stayed close to Antarctica in the cold waters of the Weddell Sea and experienced little in the way of melting. However, once it began its northwards journey across Drake Passage it traveled through increasingly warm waters and began to melt. Altogether, the iceberg thinned by 67 meters from its initial 235 m thickness, with the rate of melting rising sharply as the berg drifted in the Scotia Sea around South Georgia.
Laura Gerrish, GIS and mapping specialist at BAS and co-author of the study said:
“A68 was an absolutely fascinating iceberg to track all the way from its creation to its end. Frequent measurements allowed us to follow every move and break-up of the berg as it moved slowly northwards through iceberg alley and into the Scotia Sea where it then gained speed and approached the island of South Georgia very closely.”
Thinning and breakage of the A68A iceberg over time. Melt rates increase sharply once the iceberg is drifting in open ocean north of the Antarctic peninsula. Iceberg thickness was derived from satellite altimetry data from Cryosat-2 and ICESat-2. Iceberg shape and size were sourced from Sentinel-1, Sentinel-3 and MODIS satellite data. Credit: Anne Braakmann-Folgmann CPOM
If an iceberg’s keel is too deep it can get stuck on the sea floor. This can be disruptive in several different ways; the scour marks can destroy fauna, and the berg itself can block ocean currents and predator foraging routes. All of these potential outcomes were feared when A68A approached South Georgia. However, this new study reveals that it collided only briefly with the sea floor and broke apart shortly afterward, making it less of a risk in terms of blockage. By the time it reached the shallow waters around South Georgia, the iceberg’s keel had reduced to 141 meters below the ocean surface, shallow enough to avoid the seabed which is around 150 meters deep.
Nevertheless, the ecosystem and wildlife around South Georgia will certainly have felt the impact of the colossal iceberg’s visit. When icebergs detach from ice shelves, they drift with the ocean currents and wind while releasing cold fresh meltwater and nutrients as they melt. This process influences the local ocean circulation and fosters biological production around the iceberg. At its peak, the iceberg was melting at a rate of 7 meters per month, and in total it released a staggering 152 billion tonnes of fresh water and nutrients.
Anne Braakmann-Folgmann, a researcher at CPOM and PhD candidate at the University of Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment, is lead author of the study. She said:
“This is a huge amount of melt water, and the next thing we want to learn is whether it had a positive or negative impact on the ecosystem around South Georgia.
“Because A68A took a common route across the Drake Passage, we hope to learn more about icebergs taking a similar trajectory, and how they influence the polar oceans.”
The journey of A68A has been charted using observations from 5 different satellites. The iceberg’s area change was recorded using a combination of Sentinel-1, Sentinel-3, and MODIS imagery. Meanwhile, the iceberg’s thickness change was measured using CryoSat-2 and ICESat-2 altimetry. By combining these measurements, the iceberg’s area, thickness, and volume change were determined.
Tommaso Parrinello, CryoSat Mission Manager at the European Space Agency, said:
“Our ability to study every move of the iceberg in such detail is thanks to advances in satellite techniques and the use of a variety of measurements. Imaging satellites record the location and shape of the iceberg and data from altimetry missions add a third dimension as they measure the height of surfaces underneath the satellites and can therefore observe how an iceberg melts.”
Reference: “Observing the disintegration of the A68A iceberg from space” by A. Braakmann-Folgmann, A. Shepherd, L. Gerrish, J. Izzard and A. Ridout, 10 January 2022, Remote Sensing of Environment.
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