Starlink satellite “train” captured on video at dusk on May 26, 2019
Whether or not you like the idea of launching 12,000 Starlink satellites into orbit to provide worldwide Internet service, you’re probably curious what they look like. Tonight (Jan. 6) at 8:19 p.m. CST, SpaceX will launch its third flight of 60 Starlink satellites in a mission called Starlink 2. Over the next few nights, the satellites will look like a line of twinkling lights sliding across the sky in tight formation — an amazing sight to behold. I saw them the night after the first volley in May 2019 and let out a holler.
Depending upon your location and the angle the sun strikes a satellite you might see one or more flare. Several Starlinks show striking flares in this video.
Early on, when brightest and closest together, the satellites are similar in brightness to the Big Dipper stars. Observers living in the country and suburbs should have no problem picking them out. They’re pretty cool in binoculars, too. But as each Starlink thrusts itself to a higher altitude they’ll spread out and fade. 12,000 satellites, each the size of a kitchen table, will eventually occupy three orbital shells at altitudes of 217 miles, 342 miles and 715 miles (350 km, 550 km and 1,150 km) called a “constellation.”
While many of us enjoy seeing an occasional satellite, everyone from professional astronomers to sky watchers like you and me are concerned that all these artificial, moving “stars” will muck up the sky. At the moment, several hundred satellites total are visible with the naked eye. Imagine when that number becomes at least several thousand.
While many of the Starlinks will be too faint to see from light-polluted locations, many will not especially during the summer months when satellites remain visible late into the night. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk agreed to paint the undersides of the satellites black to address concerns from professional astronomers who need a “clean” sky to make photos and gather data on faint objects. Tonight’s flight will be the first time the company will be testing an experimental darkening treatment of one satellite.
SpaceX will broadcast the launch live on their website beginning about 15 minutes before liftoff around 8 p.m. CST. If the mission is scrubbed due to weather or technical problems, the next launch opportunity will be on Tuesday, Jan. 7 at 7:57 p.m. CST. For now, it appears that the first Starlink passes will occur around dawn tomorrow. I’ll be keeping track, and update this blog once I get a better idea of the best viewing locations and times.
To find out if they’ll be passing over your town check out the dedicated Starlink 2 page at the satellite tracking site, Satflare. Once the page loads, click the Predict Passes box and wait for it to load. If you get a green or yellow box, click it and you’ll see the satellite’s path on the map. If all the boxes are red there are no visible passes during the time frame for your location. For instance, I checked my location and found no good passes for the coming nights (darn!)
You can also go the Heavens Above. Log in, select your location and then look for a link for Starlink 2 in the list of links on the left hand side of the page. When you click it you’ll see times, altitudes and brightness. Brightness is given in magnitudes — the smaller the number the brighter the object. The next batch of satellites should shine at around 2nd magnitude.
As I write, Heavens Above lists only the “when and where” of the previous Starlink launch called Starlink — all objects from second launch. Chris Peat, who runs the site, is excellent at updating, so I expect we’ll see a fresh link there soon.
The target date for the start of the Starlink broadband Internet service is later this year for the northern U.S. and Canada with global coverage anticipated in 2021. Each satellite is equipped with a collision avoidance system to avoid crashes to minimize the chances of creating more space junk in near-Earth space. They also feature a flat design so they can be stacked like so many pancakes inside SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.
Like it or not here they come.