Astro Bob: BlueWalker 3 unfurls and brightens
The prototype BlueWalker 3 satellite that will usher in space-based, broadband cell service is now easily visible with the naked eye. Get ready. More than 100 even brighter satellites are planned.
DULUTH — Back in September I described a new 4G broadband satellite cellular service planned by AST SpaceMobile. At the time, their prototype unit, BlueWalker3 , orbited the Earth but had yet to unfold, the reason it was too faint for most casual skywatchers to track. That's changed. On November 10, the company "unboxed" the satellite — basically a squash-court-sized antenna array — which greatly increased its surface area and therefore its capacity to reflect sunlight.
The very next night, the first reports trickled in, describing BlueWalker 3 as brighter than most stars. I've spent the past few evenings observing passes of the satellite from my driveway here in Duluth, Minnesota, and can confirm those observations. I've seen it now on three occasions. During each appearance it showed up on time and grew as bright as magnitude 1.3, equal to Deneb in the Northern Cross and very easy to see with the naked eye even through light cloud and moderate light pollution.
The satellite circles the planet in low-Earth orbit between 312 and 327 miles (508-527km) altitude or about 60-75 miles higher than the International Space Station. Why should you care? BlueWalker 3 is the predecessor of a new "constellation" of some 110 larger satellites (called BlueBirds) that will launch aboard SpaceX rockets in the next few years. The first five are slated for liftoff in late 2023 .
Being larger they'll likely also be brighter. As skywatchers I think it's important to know about any new project that adds more machines to the night sky so we can see what's happening with informed eyes. Like most people I enjoy satellite-watching but fear we've reached a saturation point. There are now so many "moving lights" up there they distract from our appreciation of the wild essence of the night.
We're not alone. Professional astronomers have to grapple with satellite tracks on photographs as well as the "noise" produced by radio communications between satellites and the ground that interferes with cosmic sources. The real problem, of course, is us. Who doesn't want faster internet or in this case, a space-based, broadband cellphone service that would provide coverage virtually anywhere? Demand is high. Thankfully, we're also the solution.
One thing we can do is talk with our legislators or file a complaint with the FCC, which grants licenses for satellite constellations, and insist that satellite companies do everything possible to adjust orbits, employ deflectors and black-coat their "birds" before a deal is signed and a permit released.
In the meantime, you can track the new BlueWalker 3 through mid-December during the early evening hours by going to heavens-above.com and clicking on the blue Change Your Observation Location link to set your location. Once done, return to the main page and click the blue BlueWalker 3 link. That will display a table of visible passes for your city.
Select a pass where the magnitude is the 2.0-2.5 range then click the blue date link for a map showing that pass. Remember that times are on a 24-hour clock, so 18:00 is 6 p.m. local time.