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The Prison of Technology, 26th December 2019, by Rafael Schmall

Former Fleet Street picture editor Alan Sparrow introduces this month’s image

Rafael Schmall’s picture here is the winner of the People and Space section of the Royal Observatory Greenwich’s Insight Investment Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, now in its twelfth year and attracting over 5,000 entries from around the world.

In this submission the star in the middle is the Albireo Double Star, and the white lines are the trails of moving satellites. Schmall, who lives in Hungary and works at the Zselic Park of Stars, took the photograph on Boxing Day last year.

''The picture composition was planned, but the weather was a lucky break, the first night was too cloudy. I programmed my telescope with a command of ten images, each exposure was for 2.5 minutes on ISO1600. The traces of the satellites were seen in about five images. The images are stacked using computer software and some enhancements are made to improve the colour and contrast.''

''Sometimes beauty can reveal an unattractive truth. This picture is as aesthetically pleasing as it is shocking” said Melanie Vandenbrouck, curator of art (post-1800) at Royal Museums Greenwich. “How far must we go in our quest for ‘more’ before we realise how irretrievably we are altering our precious connection with our night sky?''

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) estimated in April that there were a total of 2,666 satellites in space, and since then there have been many more launches. The most prolific is Elon Musk’s' SpaceX for its broadband project, Starlink. So far, SpaceX has launched more than 800 satellites into orbit and has plans for an interconnected network of 12,000 satellites and potentially over 40,000 in total. Amazon recently announced plans to launch over 3,000 to provide internet connection to under-connected parts of the world.

One can only imagine that star seekers in the future will have a real challenge in separating shooting stars from the man-made imposters, and the next time you ponder the question , “twinkle twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are”, I guess the answer will be obvious: it’s an Elon Musk satellite.

You can see this and other images from the competition in an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum that runs until August 2021, but you have to book in advance.

Prints of Rafael Schmall's image can be acquired at Fleet Streets Finest where more masterpieces from the art of photojournalism can be seen



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