It must have been a premonition. In an astronomy talk on Tuesday I encouraged the group to make good use of every clear night before smoke from Canadian forest fires smudges out the stars. That very evening the pall arrived. Sure, it made for a fiery orange ball of a sunset sun, but since then smoke has robbed the stars of their splendor.
In what has become an annual occurrence, extreme dryness in the northern Canadian provinces and California has led to a rash of wildfires. Winds from the north and west have blown the smoke across the continent in spreading gray tendrils that now reach from the source in northern Alberta across the northern third of the U.S. to Nova Scotia.
Yesterday morning the sky appeared blue until you took a closer look. That’s when I noticed subtle puffy clouds of incoming high-altitude smoke. By nightfall under a “clear” sky, the star appeared much dimmer especially those near the horizon, where our line of sight passes through a greater volume of smoke. It was a sad sight and one I hope doesn’t last for too long. But if the previous several years are any indication, we could suffer weeks of sooty skies and sucked-up starlight.
The only upside are red suns near sunrise and sunset. Otherwise the smoke is a headache for skywatchers and a potential health hazard when it reaches ground level. As far as I can tell there’s little to no smell where I live, indicating that the clouds are still at relatively high altitude. You can monitor your air quality here.
I wanted to share this with you in case you wondered why the sun looked funny or why your night skies had deteriorated. It’s not your eyes going bad! Skywatchers in the southern half of the U.S. are still “smoke-free,” but keep an eye. Smoke has a way of expanding and getting into everything depending on how the wind blows. You’ll know it’s arrived when the sky looked milky white and the sun turns begins to orange up long before it sets.
That brings us the status of the Starlink satellite train that many of you have tried to find in the past week. As expected, the satellites have faded as they ascend to higher orbit. They’re also a lot more spread out. I last saw them on May 28 and most were too faint to see with the naked eye, but a few flared just bright enough to see with the naked eye. Fire haze was present so the sky wasn’t the best.
Starlink satellite train with flaring
They’re now so spread out that I spent nearly 20 minutes looking through binoculars watching them parade by. Binoculars are the way to go since they’re mostly dim except for those occasional flares when the sun hits them just right. Some passed singly, other in quick groups of 2, 3 or 4.
I recommend to check the Starlink path first before you go out to watch a pass. Look for a bright star or planet it will pass near then focus your binoculars at that spot and wait for the objects to zip by. If you just randomly scan the path you might miss them. A bright star gives you an anchor point. I got lucky on May 28th with the North Star. Heavens Above has the best maps. For more information and map sites click on the link above which will take you to my earlier blog on the topic.
SpaceX and Elon Musk are getting a lot of blowback from both amateur and professional astronomers about filling the skies with up to 12,000 satellites. The folks at the International Dark-Sky Association, who helped in so many ways to mitigate light pollution on the ground, aren’t exactly shouting for joy either. I encourage you to read their statement and share your thoughts in the Comments.