Nov. 13, 2022: Evidence is mounting that AST SpaceMobile’s BlueWalker 3 satellite has unfurled its its huge antenna. Multiple observers have seen the satellite shining like a 1st magnitude star–a 50-fold increase in brightness compared to just a few days ago. Paul Maley of Arizona saw it in bright morning twilight on Nov. 11th, and Gary Dowdle of Texas caught it just before sunrise on Nov. 12th:
“The satellite was very low in the northeastern sky, about 16.5 degrees above the horizon,” says Dowdle. “Nevertheless, it was easily visible to the naked eye at magnitude +2 just below the handle of the Big Dipper.”
Paul Maley saw it again on Sunday morning, Nov. 13th. “It came out of Earth’s shadow at magnitude +3 then steadily brightened to magnitude +1,” he says. “Its visual profile remains unchanged over the last 3 days. The spacecraft appears completely stable with no signs of tumbling.”
BlueWalker 3 is a revolutionary communications satellite designed to provide cell phone service from space. To detect weak cell phone signals from Earth’s surface it needs a very large antenna. BlueWalker 3’s is about the size of a squash court:
Astronomers have worried that BlueWalker 3 could become one of the brightest objects in the night sky, reflecting bright beams of sunlight into telescopes on the ground below. Those fears have not been fully realized. If the satellite is really only as bright as a 1st magnitude star, then it would be no worse than, say, China’s Tiangong space station or the ISS.
It may be too soon to relax, though. While this is only a single satellite for now, Bluewalker’s maker AST SpaceMobile plans to launch more than 100 larger satellites called BlueBirds. These satellites could be more than twice the size of BlueWalker 3 and much brighter. Flocks of Bluebirds could ruin a lot of astronomical observations.
Set against this detriment to astronomy is the good these satellites could do by providing emergency services and cell phone connectivity to remote areas. AST SpaceMobile explains.
You can help monitor BlueWalker 3. Morning and evening flybys are currently happening over the USA. Check Heavens Above for local flyby times and let us know what you see.
UPDATE: The CEO of AST SpaceMobile confirmed in a Tweet this morning that BlueWalker 3 has indeed unfurled its antenna, accounting for the observations described below. He also shared images of the antenna taken from orbit with different sun angles.
This story was brought to you by Spaceweather.com