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Astronomers warn Elon Musk's satellites could change our night sky

The massive Starlink satellite network from SpaceX is causing worries.

Starlink satellites ready to go into orbit.

SpaceX
  • SpaceX recently launched the first 60 of a planned 12,000 satellites for its Starlink network.
  • The network will bring internet connectivity to an additional several billion people.
  • Astronomers worry that all the satellites in low orbit will ruin the night sky and hinder science.

SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, recently launched the first batch of its Starlink satellite network into orbit. It was either a remarkable milestone for an audacious plan or the beginning of the end for the night sky as we know it, according to some critics.

While only 60 of the satellites went up into space aboard the Falcon 9 on May 23, the long-term plan is to up that number to around 12,000 by the mid-2020s. The stated goal is for these satellites to offer internet from space, making sure every part of the globe has a broadband connection.

An hour after launch from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the 500-pound satellites went up into orbit, about 340 miles (500 km) above Earth. Their array made for an incredible display, captured here by an amateur astronomer over Netherlands:

Not everyone was feeling optimistic from the launch, however. A number of astronomers have come out to say that crowding the sky with more permanent lights (which might even be visible during the day) is not a technological feat to applaud.

The big difference here is that previous launches generally placed larger communication satellites in fixed high orbits of about 36,000 km and up above the equator. Musk's network will be in much lower orbit, likely not requiring bulky satellite dishes for contact but also moving quickly around the world. In fact, its first sightings were reported as UFOs.

As the astronomer Michael J. I. Brown of Monash University writes in The Conversation, if all the planned satellites will be above us, there's a good chance hundreds of them will be visible above the horizon at all times. As they are visible to the naked eye, they could outnumber and outshine the brightest stars.

Marco Langbroek, who captured the train of Starlink satellites on video, said he didn't anticipate how bright they would be, adding "It really was an incredible and bizarre view to see that whole train of objects in a line moving across the sky."

Ronald Drimmel from the Turin Astrophysical Observatory in Italy called this a "potential tragedy".

"The potential tragedy of a mega-constellation like Starlink is that for the rest of humanity it changes how the night sky looks," said Drimmel. "Starlink, and other mega constellations, would ruin the sky for everyone on the planet."

As reported in Forbes, astrophysicist Darren Baskill from the University of Sussex in the U.K. also chimed in, warning: "If we can see them [satellites] with our eyes, that means they are extremely bright for the latest generation of large, sensitive ground-based telescopes."

Indeed, another worry for the astronomers is that the satellites will make it hard for telescopes like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope in Chile to take obstructed views of the sky; any picture would likely include thousands of satellites. Radio astronomy may also be disrupted by countless satellite signals traveling back and forth.

Next for the Starlink project is to get the satellite count to 800, at which point the network will become operational. Musk sees this network, which can provide internet connectivity for up to 3 billion people, as an important new stream of revenue for SpaceX, coming into existence ahead of similar projects like Amazon's Project Kuiper from the tech rival Jeff Bezos. That system, called a "constellation" by Amazon, plans to feature 3,236 satellites in low-Earth orbit.

Currently, there are about 18,000 objects tracked in Earth's orbit, with 2,000 satellites.

For his part, Elon Musk has not ignored the issue, saying he sent a note to the Starlink team to figure out how to make the satellites less reflective, perhaps raising their orbits.

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

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