Seeing The Starlink Satellites — Let’s Try This Again

In this 20-second time exposure made on Jan. 16, 2020 you can see the trails of five Starlink satellites. I added the yellow dots to the start of each trail so you could better interpret how the five looked to the naked eye. The satellites were all about magnitude 3 and each about 5° from one another as they marched up the southwestern sky in succession. Bob King

I know a lot of you including myself didn’t get to see the most recent batch of 60 Starlink satellites that launched on Jan. 6. They simply didn’t clear the horizon from many U.S. locations or were visible before dawn for only a few brief seconds.

But recently I’ve noticed they’re making some nice appearances in the evening sky. The satellites are fainter than during the initial week of launch, but I saw a remarkable display of them last night (Jan. 16) despite light pollution from the city of Duluth. Beginning at 6:47 p.m., one after another rose up from the southwestern horizon as if shot out of a cannon. They appeared about 5 seconds apart and were all about magnitude 3 (one level fainter than the stars of the Big Dipper).

This Heavens Above map shows the path that a batch of 38 Starlink satellites will take over Duluth, Minn. region. Saturday evening Jan. 18. They “rise” in the southwestern sky not far from Venus and move to the left or east, finishing at 6 p.m. If you then wait 7 minutes, a second brighter group of 21 more will follow along a similar path starting at 6:07 p.m. Times are given in 24-hour military time, so 17:51 = 5:51 p.m. Courtesy of Chris Peat

I used binoculars at first but discovered I could see them faintly with the naked eye. Each climbed to about 25° altitude and then quickly disappeared as if swallowed by an invisible black hole in the sky. Of course, it was Earth’s shadow up to its usual tricks. When any satellite moves into the shadow, it’s eclipsed just the moon is eclipsed by our planet’s shadow at full moon.

I saw about 40 Starlinks total. It was hard to keep count because they just kept coming … and coming. Their average separation was about 5° but that varied. Some were closer, some farther apart. You can get all the information you need to see them in the early evening sky this coming week by going to Heavens Above and clicking on the Starlink — all objects from third launch link on left side of the page. That will take you to a long list of many dozens of satellites along with viewing times, altitudes and so on. You’re most interested in the times and the magnitude. Magnitude is a measure of an astronomical object’s brightness. The smaller the number, the brighter the object.

This simulation shows an “aerial view” from 4,354 miles (7,007 km) altitude of 24 sets of 60 Starlink satellites orbiting the Earth. Satellites in yellow are in sunlight; those in red in shadow. Tom Ruen

Look for batches of passes where the magnitude is around 4 or brighter. If you only see those for magnitude 5, that’s still OK but you’ll definitely need binoculars. Have them handy anyway. Any pair, even in light-polluted conditions, can pick out 4th and 5th magnitude satellites with ease. Click on the first pass in a series and you’ll get a map showing where to look for it. Successive passes will follow almost exactly the same path, so if you spot one Starlink, just watch and wait. One after another will appear along the same path car headlights on a freeway. They may be up to a half-minute or so apart so be patient.

I enjoyed the sight, but it was tempered by concern about the future of our starry skies and how these launches could forever change its appearance and our experience. I’ll be looking for the next set of passes when the sky clears again and hope you will, too. When you go out, be aware of when it gets dark. To see magnitude 3 Starlinks it has to be at least an hour after sunset. Click here to find your sunset time. More questions? Just ask.