Satellite parade over Saskatoon, Regina shows how Elon Musk is changing the Prairie night sky

·2 min read

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk's Starlink satellite program is changing the night sky over Saskatchewan in ways never before seen.

Musk's company SpaceX has launched more than 1,000 satellites into orbit since 2018. Each 250-kg satellite is orbiting the Earth at 550 kilometres, meant to bring high-speed internet to rural communities around the world.

It is an unsettling development for many who look up at the stars.

On Friday around 7:15 a.m. CST in Saskatoon and Regina a string of bright lights began moving west to east across the centre of the sky, the lights even spaced and moving at the same speed. They were as bright as the stars and moon, already shining in the sub-zero air.

This went on for four minutes.

"Well, it's scary," said University of Saskatchewan astronomy instructor Daryl Janzen.

"I mean, on the one hand this is going to provide internet to people who can't currently get it. But on the other hand, you know, from an astronomy standpoint, we don't really know what the impact is going to be."

Musk plans on launching 40,000 satellites, which Janzen says will complicate matters for people on the ground trying to study the stars.

He said that satellites "slashing through images" will make it near impossible to do astronomy from the ground.

"From an astronomy standpoint, it could be pretty catastrophic. And then just from a naturalist environmental standpoint, if we've got satellites flying around the sky that are constantly visible, that also would not be good."

Janzen also has philosophical reservations about the project. The science that was used to put these satellites up in space is directly linked to studying the stars and planets.

"Looking at the motions of the planets and trying to understand them and that search for what's going on and where we are led directly to Newtonian physics and Newton's law of universal gravitation," he said.

"That was like a 2,000-year human venture to come to that understanding. And now, 350 years later, we've taken that theory and destroyed the sky that led to it. Or potentially."

There are a variety of public websites devoted to tracking satellites, offering everything from launch histories to ways to calculate when to spot them from different locations.

The advice on the Starlink satellites is to watch for them 30 minutes before sunrise and 30 minutes after sunset.