You’ve heard about the Starlink satellites? They’re so controversial. Designed by SpaceX to create internet access to everywhere on the planet, the ultimate plan is for a massive constellation of 42,000 satellites.
This week they’re bringing a light show like no other to the night skies over Western Europe as dozens of satellites cross one after another over the course of around four hours.
No one foresaw that the first few batches—and there are only 362 up there so far—would be so darned visible. In fact, some are proving to be briefly brighter than the planet Venus.
The “trains” are about 30 satellites. Ironically, Starlink is getting people to look up at the night sky while many are concerned that the very same phenomenon is a threat to it.
Here’s a summary of where we are with Starlink:
- Techies love Starlink and think they could save the world.
- Astronomers hate Starlink and believe they will/are making scientific observations difficult. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk disagrees, though attempts to darken Starlink satellites have had questionable success.
- Astrophotographers hate that Starlink trains appear in (and ruin) their long exposure photographs of the night sky.
- Environmentalists don’t want more space junk—an argument bolstered by the impending bankruptcy of SpaceX’s rival OneWeb, who has similar plans (and just launched its first 74 satellites).
- And stargazers? They just want to see a “Starlink Train”.
Whatever your opinion on whether they are a positive or a negative, here’s exactly when to get outside this week, look up, and see one of the most incredible sights of your life—a seemingly never-ending train of super-bright satellites.
How to see the Starlink satellites train
With stargazing from homes, gardens, backyards and windows becoming a popular pastime in these times of lockdown, everyone’s going to want to see a Starlink train. This week, if you’re in Western Europe, it’s easy; you just go outside and look-up to see them travel from west to east.
You don’t any equipment, just your naked eyes and some patience—Starlink trains can be up to 10 minutes “late.”
When to see the Starlink satellites train
To find out exactly when a Starlink train will be visible from your precise location, visit the Find Starlink website (or the “Find Starlink Satellites” app) and just enter your location. It prioritises bright passes of newly-launched satellites—that’s important (some are very dim)— and even gives a live map of where they are now.
You can also get detailed information from the reliable Heavens Above website, which gives comprehensive information on every single Starlink satellite, and even includes a skychart for each individual pass.
Why are Starlink satellites so bright?
Their solar panels are glinting, but there’s actually a huge variation in their brightness. It’s all about angles—your exact position, the satellite’s trajectory, and precisely how far below the horizon the Sun is when the satellite passes.
However, despite the controversy, Starlink satellites are only densely packed and bright—and therefore easy to see—in the first few months after their launch. As their orbits raise, so their brightness greatly reduces.
Is Starlink a terrible blow to modern astronomy? It’s possible. But there’s no doubting that the rise of the “Starlink Trains” is also an unmissable stargazing event.
So get outside and #LookUpLockDown!
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.