As of September 2022, Starlink had sent over 3,000 satellites into space. Most of these satellites settle in the low earth orbit, intending to connect the world via the internet. These communication satellites communicate with ground transceivers and allow people in remote areas access an internet connection.
Intending to get to 42,000 satellites for a complete constellation, Starlink is now, and in the future, will remain the largest satellite operator. And with that many satellites in space, you can see them with your naked eyes as they pass over you.
So, what exactly is a Starlink satellite train, what is its purpose, and how often can you see them? Today, we dive deeply into everything there is to know about the Starlink satellite train.
Every now and then, you hear reports of people seeing a string of lights across the night sky. Before you can call Area 51 for alien reports, take a minute to observe the beauty that lines your skyline.
You might be watching a Starlink satellite launch.
As the world remained closed behind doors during the Coronavirus pandemic, Starlink sent hundreds of satellites into space. Even today, Starlink launches often have people looking up to the sky in awe. Depending on the trajectory of the Falcon 9 rocket and the condition of the sky, you can see the string of light from some places in the US and the UK. You can see these lights often if you live on the coast, especially near the launch sites in California or Florida.
These string of lights appear as the satellites are released from the rocket. What you see in the sky is a Starlink satellite train.
Usually, the string of lights from the Starlink satellite train happens about 2 days after the launch. After the vessel carrying these satellites reaches a certain level, it releases them, and they head upwards toward their orbit. Due to their distance from earth, each satellite appears as a bright spot in space.
And when they reach their final resting place in the low earth orbit, these satellites are often too high up for you to see without optical aid.
Space X is on a mission, a mission to provide satellite internet access coverage across the world. The goal is to have reliable, fast, and latency-free internet connections in over 40 countries.
To achieve this vision, Space X sends low-earth orbit satellites into space. These satellites are also intended to achieve the dream of Elon Musk, which is to have a global mobile phone service by 2023.
Satellite launches happen in batches. And over the years, the number of monthly launches has increased. In 2019, Space X hoped to have at least 9 launches in 2020. However, the number increased by 11, and many more after that.
The latest launch by Space X happened on the 28th of October and was successful. Starlink sent 53 satellites into orbit during this launch to build on their constellation and make internet connection accessible to people on earth.
The Internet from Space
Once released from the rocket, the satellites move upwards from the earth as they find and settle into orbit. Once placed into the low earth orbit, the satellites go on to serve their purpose, which is to deliver internet from satellites.
Satellites launched into the LEO become part of the Starlink constellation project. These satellites, which orbit the earth at about 550km above sea level, send a beam of internet signal from space to the ground transceivers. These base stations then broadcast the internet locally or to a Starlink router.
- Your data requests pass through your phone or computer to a satellite dish
- The dish sends the signal request to a satellite orbiting in space
- The satellite sends the request to an ISP
- The satellite then sends the data back to the internet dish, your router, and your device.
Note how the satellites are always moving at high speeds while your satellite dish at home is stationary. The Starlink constellation is configured so that all satellites can receive a request and respond to it without any problem.
As Space X launches more and more satellites into space, the number of launches per month increases. However, each of these launches involves a rocket, which carries an average of 53 satellites per launch.
These groups of satellites move into orbit together and move as a batch. These are called megaconstellations, the light trains you see after Starlink launches satellites into space.
Although the average launch contains 53 satellites, on the 24th of January 2022, Elon Musk’s Space X company launched 143 satellites aboard Falcon 9, surpassing ISRO’s record of 104 satellites.
The launch holds a record for the most satellites launched at once.
When can you see the satellite train?
Whenever a satellite launch happens, you only see the plume of light that appears behind the rocket as it pushes against gravity and breaks into space. The light continues for a few hours before disappearing as the thrusters disconnect from the payload.
During this time, you do not see the satellites.
A day or two after the launch of the satellites, the rocket releases the payload you can spot the line of lights in the night sky. The line of bright lights appears to be the same length as a clenched fist as it moves across the sky.
Since these satellites make a full revolution around the earth in just 90 minutes, they appear in your line of sight for a very short period, then disappear.
How often does the satellite train appear?
Every time you look into the sky and see a bright star, you may not be marveling at one. Instead, you may be looking at an unexpected new addition to the sky. The frequency with which the Starlink satellite train appears in the sky depends on their launch activities. The last train was seen over areas of Michigan and California on the 27th of October when the company launched 53 Starlink satellites aboard the Falcon 9.
Today, there are more than 3,000 satellites in the LEO from Space X, and even as geomagnetic storms take out some of the satellites from space, Space X continues to send even more satellites to replace the old ones.
So, you might see the Starlink satellite train sooner than expected.
Is a satellite train safe?
To observers based on earth, the bright line of lights you see after a launch is safe. However, there have been concerns that these satellites contribute significantly to the million pieces of space debris. Other astronomers are also concerned that the satellite trains might crowd the LEO.
However, according to Elon Musk, there is still room for millions of satellites in space.
In the hope of creating a world connected by satellite internet, it is very common to see a train of Starlink satellites in the sky. And when you do, you can observe or take a photo. However, do not panic; they are not UFOs or an invasion. You can look forward to more satellite trains as Starlink continues to send more batches into space.