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Heavy Traffic In Outer Space

SpaceX Dragon 16 approaching the ISS.
SpaceX CRS-16 seen from the International Space Station. Photo by Alexander Gerst.

Most of us have seen sci-fi movie scenes of a futuristic spaceport where rockets arrive and depart with regularity resembling that of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in pre-pandemic days.

Real life along the Atlantic beaches of central and northern Florida is beginning to look like science fiction, too.

There is a lot of traffic in the skies above us here, which is ironic considering how few of us are actually flying. When I wrote this column, Elon Musk’s SpaceX was scheduled to launch another commercial rocket this afternoon from Cape Canaveral. It would be the 17th orbital launch this year from the Cape Canaveral complex, which is run by the Air Force (and soon to be redesignated as a Space Force base), and the adjacent and closely connected Kennedy Space Center, which is operated by NASA. There were 16 such launches from the Cape in all of 2019. The crowded launch calendar for the rest of 2020 promises to leave that mark far behind.

Today’s planned launch would add 58 Starlink satellites to the constellation of as many as 12,000 vehicles that SpaceX has permission to send into orbit. (The company has sought permission to launch as many as 30,000 more, but has not yet secured it.) There are already 422 of the communications satellites – which are, essentially, space-based internet routers – in low earth orbit.

This latest flock of birds, like another group of 57 that launched on Aug. 7, is different from most of the earlier Starlinks. They include sun visors to reduce the glare reflected into our night skies below.

That glare has been a source of consternation to astronomers and other space-watchers. This is because it sometimes interferes with ground-based observation. Some photographers who wanted to catch time-lapse images of last month’s approach by the comet Neowise were frustrated by streaks of light left behind by orbiting Starlinks, and possibly other supraterrestrial gizmos. After all, SpaceX isn’t the only private company getting into the satellite game.

As astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics told The Wall Street Journal: “We are going through this new space industrial revolution, and the numbers of satellites are going up dramatically.”

When you get away from the bright lights of our big cities, Florida boasts a lot of fine places for watching the nighttime sky. The middle of the peninsula offers the deep Everglades, dark forests, and placid lakes and bayous. Also theme parks, but the only sky-watching venue I can recommend them for is Space Mountain.

The more remote Atlantic and Gulf coastal beaches, and the waters off their shores, usually offer a good show too. I needed binoculars, because my aging eyes are not exactly high resolution, but I caught a glimpse of Neowise from the beachfront clubhouse in my subdivision. The black skies over the Atlantic are usually a good place to catch recurring events like the Perseid meteor shower that peaked last week – but you need to get lucky with the weather. Florida gets most of its rain in the hot, humid summer months, and most of that comes from thunderstorms that boil up nearly every afternoon and gradually wind down after dark. The speed at which the nighttime skies clear is variable and hard to predict.

But aerial traffic has been the most notable feature of 2020. Launches from the Cape Canaveral region can be seen for at least 100 miles around, and they are especially vivid at night. We are seeing more of them now than we have for many years.

Usually, our night skies are also punctuated by aircraft. My vacation home at the beach is about 100 miles northeast of Orlando’s international airport. Planes arriving from the north – which is most of them, including flights from Europe – are usually beginning their initial descent as they pass over our shoreline. Farther offshore, flights to the South Florida airports are often clearly visible in our night skies, still at their cruising altitudes.

When I arrived in May, the skies were eerily quiet. Most of the little traffic I saw was general aviation, the private planes that take advantage of our many smaller airstrips as well as the big commercial facilities. Traffic has picked up somewhat since the summer began. When I went looking for comet Neowise, I found it just outside the approach path that jet after jet was taking toward Orlando.

It’s all interesting and often beautiful, and none of it is science fiction. It is real life at the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century, the first time in human history that we have had to contend with too much traffic in outer space.

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