A succession of intriguing bright lights hovering in the night sky this week have been revealed to be satellites from Elon Musk’s Starlink project.
Row of mysterious lights in #Colorado night sky is revealed to be #ElonMusk's Starlink satellites! Video shows a line of satellites making a slow trail through the sky, with many observers #enchanted by the display! #Oigetit #fakenewsfilter pic.twitter.com/hrrbocbnes— oigetit_sports (@oigetit_sports) March 7, 2020
Earlier, responses had ranged from “kinda freaky” to “cool”, as social media users flooded the internet on 6 March and over the weekend to post their sightings of the train of lights making their way across the skies over Colorado.
Many users shared their ideas as to what the lights might be.
I live in western Pennsylvania and seen the same lights about 2 hours ago. Probably 20 or so of em moving in straight line evenly spaced apart. Looked like stars....weird— Chris (@christomojo) March 6, 2020
I did. I saw 4 lights moving Southwest to Northeast. They were all equal distant from each other. Going pretty fast and then all disappeared when getting to the same spot in the sky. Was very bizarre.— Alicia Groves (@akgroves24) March 6, 2020
We saw a bunch of starlink satellites last night about this time, generally heading SW to NE, viewed from FoCo.— Ian Hogan (@XiolaBlues) March 6, 2020
Earlier, a video of the trail of lights streaming across the skies as they followed their low-earth orbits was taken in New Zealand on 23 February, shortly after the last satellite launch.
Some social media users enthusiastically commented on the “cool” sighting.
Kinda cool to see Starlink satellites in the night sky tonight. Six total. #starlink Moon didn’t disappoint either 🤣— That Scorpio Chic (@ThatScorpiChic) March 7, 2020
Some netizens, however, found the sight “scary”.
Marring the Skies
While netizens shared their impressions of the startling sight, detractors like Travis Longcore, an associate adjunct professor at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, snarkily condemned Elon Musk’s satellite project as a “crime against humanity”.
Starlink is a crime against humanity; it robs us of the skies of our ancestors to every corner of the earth. https://t.co/WfIcVZHS0e— Travis Longcore (@travislongcore) March 5, 2020
Another astronomer tweeted that the sight was “depressing”.
Wow!! I am in shock!! The huge amount of Starlink satellites crossed our skies tonight at @cerrotololo. Our DECam exposure was heavily affected by 19 of them! The train of Starlink satellites lasted for over 5 minutes!! Rather depressing… This is not cool! pic.twitter.com/gK0ekbpLJe— Clarae Martínez-Vázquez (@89Marvaz) November 18, 2019
This is an infliction. Musk’s money making idea mars the Earth’s skies.— Tabby sky (@TabbyTeahouse) March 5, 2020
The Starlink project has drawn criticism for the effects that it will have on observations of the night's sky, as the network of hundreds of satellites reflects light from the sun and can corrupt between 30 to 40 per cent of astronomical images.
According to a recent study from the European Southern Observatory (ESO), satellite mega-constellations such as Starlink will “severely” affect between 30 and 50 per cent of observations taken by the Rubin Observatory, currently being built in Chile.
The orbiting satellites can also interfere with the workings of ground-based radio telescopes used by experts.
In response to the criticism, Elon Musk tweeted in May 2019 that the amount of light that the later satellites have been sending down toward the earth would be studied and measures to mitigate the effects taken.
Agreed, sent a note to Starlink team last week specifically regarding albedo reduction. We’ll get a better sense of value of this when satellites have raised orbits & arrays are tracking to sun.— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 27, 2019
SpaceX has been working with the American Astronomical Society for the past six months to come up with a solution to the problems the satellite constellation has created.
A spokesperson for the American Astronomical Association said they wanted to find a way to work with SpaceX without “giving up the night sky”.
“The goal of Starlink is to provide worldwide internet service, an aspiration we do not want to impede, but this requires one to two orders of magnitude more low Earth orbiting satellites (LEOs) than currently exist,” wrote the American Astronomical Society in an early December update of its joint efforts with Tesla.
The Society added:
"Despite all the complexities of how our community makes O/IR observations, we are working to see if we can develop a brightness level for them to aim at, and we are conducting a survey of research observatories to gather this information."
The ambitious Starlink project was launched by Elon Musk to provide low-cost broadband internet service from low Earth orbit, especially in areas where connections are harder to get, or more expensive.
Lifted up on SpaceX's reusable Falcon 9 rocket, the first 60 satellites were launched on 24 May 2019, and with the fifth batch successfully launched in February, the company now has 300 of the satellites over the Earth.
SpaceX has plans to have thousands more launched over the next few years, with the ambitious target of 1,500 satellites in low-orbit by the end of 2020.
The company will have a total of 42,000 satellites if its proposal is approved.