A vast fleet of Starlink satellites orbits Earth, providing internet coverage on a global scale. On a clear night, you may be able to catch a glimpse of a few satellites in this megaconstellation as they crawl across the sky. And if you're lucky enough to see them shortly after deploying, you might even see them appear as a "Starlink satellite train."
While the ever-growing satellite armada is a menace to astronomical observations, it can provide an interesting target for skywatchers if you know when and where to look.
Appearing as a string of bright lights in the sky, Starlink trains can look rather "otherwordly" and have prompted numerous UFO-sighting reports when they first took to the skies. But the long lines of lights are only visible shortly after launch. Once the satellites climb to their operating altitude of 340 miles (550 kilometers) they disperse and are far more difficult to differentiate against the backdrop of stars, though a timelapse photograph will pick them out easier.
The megaconstellation developed by the private spaceflight company SpaceX may grow to as many as 42,000 satellites in orbit, according to the science news website NASA Spaceflight. As of May 31, 2023, there are 4,198 Starlink satellites in orbit, of which 3,542 are operational according to astronomer Jonathan McDowell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who tracks the constellation on his website. Given the high numbers of regular Starlink launches (sometimes multiple times a week), there is ample opportunity to set your sights on catching a glimpse of the infamous "Starlink train".
Though it should be noted that Starlink satellites are not as visible nowadays compared to when they first appeared. This is due to efforts such as the Starlink VisorSat program which aim to darken the satellites so as to not interfere as much with astronomical observations.
Where to see Starlinks satellites and when?
To find out when you can see a Starlink satellite near you, check out this Starlink locator website that details when and where to look for your next Starlink viewing opportunity.
If you want to see where all of the Starlink satellites are located in real-time this Starlink map shows the global coverage of each Starlink satellite as well as information on how many are currently in service, inactive or have burned up in Earth's atmosphere.
Why can we see Starlink satellites? Do they have lights?
We can see Starlink satellites only when they reflect sunlight; they do not possess lights of their own.
The vast and ever-increasing numbers of satellites from SpaceX and other private space companies, such as OneWeb, suggest that light pollution and other issues stemming from these megaconstellations may continue, and advocates have called for greater regulations from government agencies.
Can you spot them when they deobit?
If Starlink satellites fail to make orbit, they then return to Earth in dramatic fashion, burning up as they go. This happened on Feb. 4, 2022, when a freshly launched batch of Starlinks encountered the effects of a big geomagnetic storm. They were sent crashing back to Earth over the coming days and a remarkable video captured some of the space debris burning up over Puerto Rico on Feb. 7, 2022.
Read about how SpaceX's next generation of Starlink satellites (Starlink 2.0) have undergone a series of upgrades to reduce interference for the global astronomical community in this article published on the science communication site Interesting Engineering. Explore how light pollution hurts the night sky for astronomy with these resources from Florida Atlantic University's Department of Physics.
Who owns the night sky? This interesting article published on the International Dark-Sky Association's website takes a deeper look into the industrialization of space, the impacts of satellites and the cultural and biological heritage of the night sky.
How Starlink Works. Starlink. (n.d.). Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.starlink.com/technology
Iemole, A. (2021, January 20). SpaceX launches First Starlink Mission of 2021. NASASpaceFlight.com. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://www.nasaspaceflight.com/2021/01/spacex-launch-first-starlink-mission-2021/
Jonathan's space pages. Jonathan's Space Report | Space Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://planet4589.org/space/con/star/stats.html
Live Starlink Satellite and coverage map. Starlink satellite tracker. (n.d.). Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://satellitemap.space/?constellation=starlink
SpaceX Starlink Satellites Tracker. (n.d.). Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://findstarlink.com/
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Daisy Dobrijevic joined Space.com in February 2022 having previously worked for our sister publication All About Space magazine as a staff writer. Before joining us, Daisy completed an editorial internship with the BBC Sky at Night Magazine and worked at the National Space Centre in Leicester, U.K., where she enjoyed communicating space science to the public. In 2021, Daisy completed a PhD in plant physiology and also holds a Master's in Environmental Science, she is currently based in Nottingham, U.K. Daisy is passionate about all things space, with a penchant for solar activity and space weather. She has a strong interest in astrotourism and loves nothing more than a good northern lights chase!