SpaceX Starlink satellites viewed from the Netherlands on May 24, 2019 / Marco Langbroek
I’d seen the video and read the reports, but that still didn’t prepare me for the sight of 60 satellites — yes, 60 — chugging along in a straight line last night. Launched on May 23, they were only the first volley in what will become a web of 12,000 Starlink satellites that provide fast, space-based, global internet service. If you guessed this idea was the brainchild of SpaceX’s Elon Musk, you are correct.
Successful deployment of Starlink satellites in orbit. We see all 60 folded up tight. Shortly after, they separated by simply spreading apart from each other like a deck of cards to form the remarkable “sky train.” SpaceX
The Starlink train first appeared in the west at 11:25 p.m. and looked like a faint thread of light about 10° long (one fist) like the most perfectly ordered flock of geese. As it drew higher and closer, the line spread out to the length of the Big Dipper (25°) and I could distinguish individual faint satellites. There were too many to count! Sometimes one or two would brighten up to 2nd magnitude and then fade quickly, making the line appear to sparkle and glitter. At that point I let out an involuntary, slow “w-h-o-a.” Never ever had I seen such a mesmerizing sight. OK, a total solar eclipse is better, but this was pretty cool!
I’d say that most of the satellites were between magnitude 3 to 5 and easily visible from my moderately dark-sky site. After passing overhead they chug-a-lugged east toward Vega and the Northern Cross before dropping behind the trees. All told I watched for maybe 5 minutes.
When first launched, they were even closely spaced and brighter — about 7° across and between 1st and 3rd magnitude — because the unpacking process had only begun and the initial orbit was just 275 miles (440 km) high. Soon after launch, mission control powered up the satellites’ engines to loft them to an operational orbit of 340 miles (550 km) altitude. The higher they go, the fainter they’ll appear in the coming days and weeks.
That’s why I hope you get outside at the earliest opportunity to catch a look before they fade or get too spread out. No one’s certain exactly how bright the Starlink trails will be the next few nights, but I strongly encourage you to go out for a look if there’s a pass over your area. Find a dark sky for the best view. Fortunately, the moon is waning in the morning sky and won’t pose much of a problem.
How to See it
The easiest way is to go to Heavens Above and select your location then return to the main page and click on the Starlink leader and Starlink trailer links. These are the first and last satellites in what has now become a long procession. As of May 27 the full train is over 100° long! The leader is a couple minutes ahead of the main group, so if you see just one or two at first, stick around. The others will follow along the same path.
Starlink Satellite Tracker is super-easy to use. Select your city from the drop-down list or input your latitude and longitude if your city’s not on the list. You’ll get a list of passes and where to look. It also has a new feature showing a live view of where Starlink is right now for your location. If you don’t know your lat-long, click here.
N2YO.com also shows passes and information for the Starlink Group. Once at the site, type Starlink in the Find a Satellite box. This will show the next pass. For a list of passes, click on the Track 1-satellite link and then on the blue 10-day predictions for Starlink Group box.
CalSky is another useful site. Sign in and select your city under the Setup link, then click the Satellites link. In the more detailed menu, click on Sat-Library. In the box at left, type in the word Starlink for satellite name, then go back up to the links under the heading and click Selected Satellite.
So far, so good? In the yellow Satellite Menu box to the right, click Sighting Opportunities. Scroll down to see a list of local times, directions and altitudes. Click Star Map to get a map of the path for a particular pass. The next time you come back you only have to click the Sighting Opportunities link — the site remembers the rest. Go out a few minutes beforehand to dark-adapt your eyes. Don’t forget binoculars! They view is incredible through them plus you’re guaranteed to see all 60. How fast can you count?
One final point: the Starlinks are getting fainter and more spread out, so they’re becoming more difficult to see especially if you live near or in a big city. If that’s the case, take a look at the satellites’ path on the maps from Heavens Above and CalSky. Will the procession pass by a bright star? If so, locate that star 10-15 minutes beforehand and point your binoculars there at the appointed time. If that doesn’t work, just be patient. 4-5 more launches of 60 are planned for later in the year, guaranteeing more opportunities to see them.
The satellites will be launched into three different altitude constellations ranging from 210 to 715 miles (340 to 1,150 kilometers). Six more launches of 60 will be needed to initially activate the system; after 12 launches significant coverage will be available. No word on what the cost for the internet service will be, but it’s expected to be faster than any land-based choice. That’s because the satellites communicate by laser and light travels much faster in space than it does through glass fiber optic cable.
Expected lifetime of a Starlink satellite is around 5 years followed by a safe and efficient burn-up in the atmosphere. All of the satellites are equipped with a hazard avoidance system to prevent crashes and the dangerous debris they create. While the views of these amazing “space trains” are and will be incredible, some of us are concerned about all the traffic up there. In 9 years or so when 12,000 satellites will be zipping around, will they detract from the sky itself? I’m told that most will be too high to see, but those in the lowest belt are guaranteed to be visible. And what of other companies that will want to compete with SpaceX for your internet dollar?
As I look up in wonder, I wonder where we’re taking ourselves.