A Starlink satellite can also be spotted in the sky. Yes, you heard it right!
On the 24th of September, 2022, Peter Forister in Gordonsville, Virginia, took an image at 7:38 p.m. As a caption, he wrote, “Spectacular sunset colors with the SpaceX Starlink rocket launch this evening. Sunset light illuminated the exhaust gasses from the Falcon 9 rocket as it launched, creating the ‘twilight phenomenon’ show up the East Coast.”
Here are more details into what a Starlink satellite could look like in the sky.
Starlink Satellites revolve around the earth in a vast fleet, offering internet coverage to consumers on a global scale. When the night is clear, it may be possible for you to catch a glimpse of the few satellites in the mega-constellation as they crawl across the sky. If you are lucky to see them after deploying, they may appear like a Starlink satellite train.
Starlink trains may look otherworldly and have promoted numerous UFO-sighting reports when they first took to the skies. However, the long lines of lights are only visible shortly after their launch. Once the satellite has successfully climbed to the operating altitude of 340 miles (550 kilometers), it disperses and becomes difficult to differentiate against the backdrop of the stars. Pro photographers often try to capture a time-lapse image of this scenario.
A Starlink satellite has a lifespan of approximately five years. SpaceX hopes to have as many as 42,000 satellites in the mega-constellation that Starlink comprises. The current V2 Starlink satellite version weighs 800 kilograms at launch, almost thrice the weight of the older-generation satellites.
As of July 2023, there are 4,519 satellites in orbit, out of which 4,487 are operational, as per Astronomer Jonathan McDowell, who tracks the constellation on his website.
The size and scale of the Starlink project make many astronomers worried as they fear that the bright orbiting objects will interfere with observations of the universe and spaceflight safety experts who now see Starlink as the number one source of collision hazard in the Earth’s orbit. Besides this, many scientists worry about the amount of metal that will be burning up in the atmosphere as old satellites are deorbited could trigger unpredictable changes to the climate of the planet.
The satellite show is not welcomed by all.
Within the days of the first-ever launch of Starlink satellites, many sky-watchers spotted a linear pearl string of lights as the spacecraft whizzed overhead in the early morning. Web-based guides showed others how to track this beautiful display.
Many viewers claimed that the show was brighter than they had anticipated. The brightness came as a surprise to everyone, including SpaceX and the astronomical community. Many researchers did not take it in their stride and began to panic. They shared photos of the satellite streaks in their data and also expressed specific concerns about the future images from highly sensitive telescopes like Versa Rubin Observatory that will study the entire universe in full detail.
Another concern was raised by the International Astronomical Union in June 2019. As per their statement,
“Satellite constellations can pose a significant or debilitating threat to important existing and future astronomical infrastructures, and we urge their designers and deployers as well as policy-makers to work with the astronomical community in a concerted effort to analyze and understand the impact of satellite constellations.”
Thomas Schildknecht, the deputy director of the Astronomical Institute of the University of Bern, stated in April 2021 that the union was calling on the United Nations to protect the pristine night sky as cultural heritage against the uncontrolled expansion of mega-constellations.
Another report was released in October 2022, where the American Astronomical Society likened the impact of mega-constellations on astronomy to light pollution. Per the report, the sky may be brightened by a factor of two to three due to the diffuse reflection of sunlight off the spacecraft.
You can see Starlink satellites only when they reflect sunlight; they do not possess any light of their own. The extensive and ever-increasing numbers of these satellites and other private space companies highlight that the light pollution and other issues stemming from these mega-constellations will keep increasing. There must be greater and more substantial regulations from government agencies regarding the same.
The launch has been responsible for creating the train of lights. Thus, many people have already caught a glimpse of how Starlink satellites show up in the sky. After being launched into orbit, they continue to travel in a line. While they remain at the right elevation with the correct orientation, the sun tends to glint off the satellites, making them visible from the ground.
But the satellite show doesn’t remain visible for long. You may see the Starlink chain brightening across the sky many times in one night because of its speedy movement. However, they will eventually find their own orbits.
While the satellites remain visible, you can check them out via a handful of online sites. Find Starlink, available online and as an app is a platform, that allows you to track nearby satellite chains in three different ways – by your city, by your coordinates, and by using the Live Map tab.
For the first two options, you will be able to view a results page with information on when you may see another Starlink parade overhead. As per the developer, this platform tracks only the first satellite in every chain, otherwise, the results page remains cluttered.
Another platform that gives you a view of the Starlink satellite show is the satellitemap.space. Available as a website and app, it relies on the tracking data gathered through space-track.org to show Starlink locations. The site uses a Google Earth-like globe to display where Starlink satellites and chains are in orbit.
You can click on each satellite and see the recent path. You can also check other relevant information, such as the date and time of launch, altitude, and more. If you add a home location on the map, the site will calculate if and when a specific satellite will pass over you.