SpaceX's new array of Starlink communication satellites has even the most jaded of satellite observers agog with excitement as they move across the sky.
On Thursday evening (May 23), SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites into orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The satellites are in good health and are the first of a planned 12,000-satellite megaconstellation to provide internet access to people on Earth.
The satellites, which are now orbiting at approximately 273 miles (440 km) above the Earth, are putting on a spectacular show for ground observers as they move across the night sky.
To the eye, the 60 satellites appear as a "moving train" of moderately faint stars … generally in the magnitude +4 to +5 range, although some observers have reported that a few of the satellites in the train have appeared brighter than this. A magnitude of +6 is generally considered to be the threshold of naked eye visibility under a dark, clear sky.
Initially, the satellites were seen to be stretched out in a straight line measuring roughly 5 to 8 degrees in apparent length. Your clenched fist held at arm's length is roughly equivalent to 10 degrees, so the satellite train currently measures roughly just less than a fist in length as it moves across the sky.
With time, however, as the satellites revolve around Earth at 90 minute intervals, they should appear less "bunched" together and may actually get a bit fainter as they are slowly raised to their operational orbits of 342 miles (550 km).
Where to look!
If you would like to try and see the Starlink satellites for yourself, you are going to need to consult an online satellite pass calculator that will provide a custom viewing schedule for your hometown. One such website is CalSky here.
In the box asking you to find a satellite by name or number, simply type in Starlink and hit the “go!” button.
Both CalSky and N2YO.com automatically picks up your coordinates for satellite sightings.
A second flight #Starlink tonight over Poland #SantaClaus #SpaceX #Science #Polska #Poland 25.05.2019 ... 22:15 UTC time pic.twitter.com/0KUhCTEKwcMay 25, 2019
For those in the Greater New York City area, for instance, the best time to look for the Starlink train passing by on Sunday night (May 26) is predicted by both sites to be in the range from 10:09 to 10:20 p.m. EDT, going from southwest to northeast.
There are other predicted passes on Monday (May 27) at around 4:46 a.m. (NW to SE), 9:35 p.m. (SW to NE) and a nearly overhead pass on Tuesday at 4:07 a.m. EDT.
Considering the fact that the satellites are all generally faint, it is best to try and position yourself in as dark a location as possible, far from any bright lights that otherwise could hinder your view. Scanning the sky with binoculars will certainly help. A lot depends on just how the angle of reflected sunlight strike the satellites in the hours just after sunset or before sunrise.
Too much of a good thing?
The 60 satellites launched this week merely represent the beginning of a SpaceX campaign aimed at launching as many as 12,000 such spacecraft during the next several years. While the internet community will benefit, the astronomy community is already raising red flags over potential interference with astronomical observations.
Notes John Bortle, a noted comet observer and a long-time assiduous amateur astronomer: "The word is that SpaceX plans to launch thousands of such mini satellites. Without doubt if the program is successful it will spur others to follow suite, perhaps attempting it even earlier. Depending on orbital inclination, it could utterly ruin astrophotography as after dusk and before dawn the satellites stream across the sky progressively spreading along their orbit."
Some scientists have already expressed concern about the sheer number of bright satellites in the night sky. That number will swell, as companies like OneWeb, Amazon and Telesat are planning megaconstellations of their own.
I know people are excited about those images of the train of SpaceX Starlink satellites, but it gives me pause.They’re bright, and there are going to be a lot of them. If SpaceX launches all 12,000, they will outnumber stars visible to the naked eye.May 25, 2019
Last year, a New Zealand Company, Rocket Lab, received flak for placing what amounted to a giant mirrored "disco ball" into space, called Humanity Star.
That satellite's sole purpose, according to Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck was to simply remind skywatchers that "humanity is capable of great and kind things." But not a few astronomers were annoyed by the idea of having yet another bright satellite disrupting their view of the night sky. Humanity Star only remained in orbit for a few weeks.
The Starlink satellites however, could remain in orbit for up to five years.
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Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York's Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers' Almanac and other publications, and he is also an on-camera meteorologist for Verizon FiOS1 News in New York's lower Hudson Valley. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.