String of Lights Across the Sky Prompts Calls

Low-flying SpaceX satellites obscure the view for professionals and amateurs
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 9, 2021 10:10 AM CDT
SpaceX Launches Brighten the Sky, Clouding Views
A photo taken Thursday with a long exposure shows a string of SpaceX StarLink satellites passing over an old stone house near Florence, Kan.   (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann, File)

A string of lights that lobbed across the night sky in parts of the US on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday had some people wondering if a fleet of UFOs was coming, but it had others—mostly amateur stargazers and professional astronomers—lamenting the industrialization of space. The train of lights was actually a series of relatively low-flying satellites launched by Elon Musk's SpaceX as part of its Starlink internet service earlier this week. Callers swamped TV stations from Texas to Wisconsin reporting the lights and musing about UFOs, the AP reports. An email to a spokesman for SpaceX was not returned Saturday, but experts said the number of lights in quick succession and their distance from Earth made them easily identifiable as Starlink satellites. "The way you can tell they are Starlink satellites is they are like a string of pearls, these lights traveling in the same basic orbit, one right after the other," said Richard Fienberg, press officer for the American Astronomical Society.

Fienberg said the satellites that are being launched in large groups called constellations string together when they orbit, especially right after launching. The strings get smaller as time goes on. This month, SpaceX has launched dozens of satellites. It is all part of a plan to bridge the digital divide and bring internet access to underserved areas of the world, with SpaceX planning to launch another 120 satellites later in the month. Overall, the company has sent about 1,500 satellites into orbit and has asked for permission to launch thousands more. But until recently, there were maybe a few hundred satellites total orbiting Earth, mostly visible as individual lights. Other companies that are planning to or have launched the satellite constellations have not launched recently and largely pushed them into orbit farther from Earth, Fienberg said. Fienberg's group as well as others that represent both professional and amateur stargazers don't love the proliferation of satellites that can obscure scientific data and ruin a clear night of watching the universe. The International Astronomical Union issued a statement in 2019 noting concern about the multiple launches.

(Read more SpaceX stories.)

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