Dealing With All Of The Lights In The Sky

Keith's note: There was a session and a media briefing today at the AAS meeting about large satellite constellations and their impact on astronomy. The SpaceX Starlink constellation got the most attention. It seems that people are either in the BAD or NO BIG DEAL camps. But there is a place in between where a bigger picture - an emergent property - presents itself. Pamela Gay from Cosmoquest managed to capture it. I experienced it in Nepal. We are becoming a spacefaring species - and that is now expanding to all corners of our planet. We can be smart about this and manage the impact, but there is no turning back. Space is useful.

My Star Trek Episode at Everest

"One night in April 2009, as I trekked through the Khumbu region toward Everest, I stayed in Dingboche (elevation 14,470 feet) at the aforementioned Hotel Arizona. I went outside to call my wife on the Iridium satphone. It was impossibly dark with a sky full of stars unlike any I had ever seen. I was just mesmerized. It was so dark that I literally walked right into a small yak that was wandering around the Hotel Arizona.

At one point my Sherpa Tashi came out. Tashi asked me why I was looking up at the sky. He had seen satellite phones before, so he knew what they did. I explained to him that it was hard to get a signal for more than a few minutes due to the high peaks surrounding us. So, I waited to see if I could spot an Iridium satellite (easy to do) and then dialed my wife. I knew I'd lose the call as soon as the satellite passed behind a mountain - but having the satellite in sight allowed me to parse my conversation.

Tashi is a very smart guy. But he was a bit perplexed about my satellite spotting. So I taught him how to do it and explained the different types of satellites and their orbits. Like his neighbors, Tashi had always assumed that all of the moving lights in the night sky were airplanes. When I told him that they were satellites lit by sunlight he asked how they could be lit by the sun at night. I asked him why some mountain peaks were still visible well after the sun goes down or glow before the sun rises. He answered matter of factly that this was because the mountains were very high. I then asked him to imagine a mountain 100 km tall - where satellites are - and said that this is why they were still visible. Having had the experience of 12 Everest summits under his belt and gazing out over vast expanses, Tashi immediately got the concept. Several days later I saw him teaching and explaining my satellite hunting tricks to several other Sherpas.

To this day I get a shiver from this - it was a very Star Trek moment - teaching someone what the "lights in the sky" were - with a piece of the Moon in my pocket on my way to meet a space traveller. Tashi was very psyched about that. But this was not my only Star Trek moment in Nepal."

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on January 8, 2020 8:36 PM.

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