Pall Of Wildfire Smoke Dims Sun, Smudges Stars / Starlink Satellite ‘Train’ Update

At 8 a.m. today (May 30), more than two hours after sunrise, fire smoke from Alberta, Canada forest fires thousands of miles away still reddened the sun and attenuated its light. Bob King

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.

Today’s fire smoke map shows a broad “tongue” of smoke reaching from northwestern Canada across the U.S. and southern Canada. Meanwhile, out-of-control forest fires in Mexico are polluting the skies in that region. The darker the color, the thicker the smoke. Click image for the current map. NOAA
Ghostly clouds of fire smoke are faintly visible in a blue sky on May 29. Bob King

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.

Tendrils of fire smoke spread across the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin in this satellite photo taken late yesterday afternoon (May 29). The inset map is from today and shows the smoke in context. Click the image for a current satellite photo. Smoke shows best within a few hours of sunrise and sunset when the sun angle is low. NOAA / NASA
May 26 photo of one of the Alberta wildfires consuming a forest. Click the photo to go the Alberta Wildfire Facebook page. Alberta Wildfire

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.

Sunset through fire smoke in July 2014. Bob King

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.

7 Responses

  1. Kevan Hubbard

    If you get rain followed by clear skies it’ll flush the smoke particles out of the skies.I remember the terrible fires they had on Borneo a few years back which blanketed much of s.e.Asia,made worse by the fact that the police believed illegal loggers had set the fires.musk says that he is trying to find a way for his satellites to be less reflective but I suspect that the plight of stargazers will be far from this oligarchs mind.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Kevan,
      That can be true about rain, but I’ve seen smoke return within 24 hours and stick around for days and longer.

  2. Yes smoke is obscuring my sky as well. Last night I tried to observe the Starlink’s and i was going nuts knowing i was looking at the right place at the right time 15 mins or so in, the ISS appeared, yellowish in color instead of the usual bright white, and just as it was about to cross the path of the Starlink’s, I saw them flare one after another, just like they were winking at me. I’ll try again tonight 🙂

      1. With the smoky haze present, I was just using my naked eyes, but the tripod and the optics are ready to be put to good use at a moment’s notice 😀

  3. LARRY R WILSON

    I have my observatory located near Rodeo, NM so smoke at this time is not a problem. That doesn’t mean it will stay that way however. But my bigger concern is the SpaceX program. As an avid astrophotographer I am astounded at the comment Elon Musk made that the astronomical research should just be all space based indicating he doesn’t care what happens to earthbound astronomers both amateur and professional. I believe the skies overhead will eventually disappear into a plethora of satellites that will enrichen big business while forever destroying the hobby of so many of us who enjoy the wondrous beauties of the night sky either visually or photographically.

    1. astrobob

      Larry,
      Many of us share your concern. After communications and the internet, advertising can’t be far behind. And even if we might control sky-ads in one country, another needn’t abide by those rules.

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