Technology & Science

No, these aren't UFOs, but here's how you can try to spot them

Last Thursday, SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites into space. Soon after, astronomers were witnessing their trail as they crossed the sky. The good news is, they will be visible across most of Canada.

60 recently launched satellites to be joined by thousands more to improve internet access worldwide

Seen here is the trail of almost 60 satellites, recorded by Marco Langbroek in the Netherlands. The Starlink satellites were launched atop a Space X Falcon 9 rocket on May 23. (Marco Langbroek, Leiden, the Netherlands)

Last week, SpaceX launched 60 satellites into space atop its Falcon 9 rocket. Less than a day later, astronomers captured their amazing trail of lights as they crossed the sky.

They are part of a project called Starlink, which will eventually comprise 12,000 satellites whose goal is to provide much-improved internet access to every part of the world.

Marco Langbroek, an archeologist and spy satellite consultant based in the Netherlands, was stunned when he managed to record the satellites' path using a low-light surveillance camera on May 24, 22 hours after their launch.

Watch: Marco Langbroek's footage of the satellites from Leiden, the Netherlands. 

"It started with two faint, flashing objects moving into the field of view," Langbroek wrote on his blog. "Then, a few tens of seconds later, my jaw dropped as the "train" entered the field of view. I could not help shouting "OAAAAAH!!!!" (followed by a few expletives ...)"

The trail was visible from Canada, too.

Amateur astronomer Randy Dodge happened to catch it from roughly 75 kilometres west of St. John's, at around 10 p.m. ET on May 24.

"We had just finished an observing event for 'Becoming Outdoor Women' and other campers at the Salmonier Nature Park, when people started shouting and pointing to this unbelievable object passing from west to east," Dodge said. "It was a chain of lights with trailing lights, taking about three minutes to pass."

John and Andrea Peddle rushed to capture the train of Starlink satellites from Torbay, Nfld., and ended up with this image showing their path. (Submitted by Angela Peddle)

John Peddle and his wife, Andrea, also saw them in the sky above Torbay, Nfld., that same night.

"At first I thought it was the trail from a jet, but it seemed too bright for that time of the night," he said. "I looked at it through the binoculars I had with me and saw it was actually dozens of lights. At first, I thought it was a meteor or [piece] of space junk burning up, but quickly noticed the lights were moving way too uniformly for it to be that."

The satellites were at roughly 440 kilometres in altitude — slightly higher than the International Space Station. Over the coming days, as they orbit, they will rise to 550 kilometres.

There's still a chance you could spot them, too. The keys are dark skies, patience and binoculars.

How to see them

First, you need to understand about visual magnitude. Astronomers have come up with a way of measuring the brightness of objects in the night sky.

The brightness of celestial objects is on a scale that goes from the very brightest — the sun — to the dimmest. And the lower the number (negative values), the brighter the object.

As you can see by the chart above, the visual magnitude limitation for the human eye is an object with a magnitude of +6, and that's in dark-sky locations, away from the pollution of city lights. Within a city, that drops to +3.

The brightness of the Starlink satellites over Toronto, for example, range from roughly +6 to +3, right on the visual limit in light-polluted skies.

So, if you want to see the satellites — which will have spread out a bit more by now — get to a dark-sky location, away from city lights. They won't be as bright as in Langbroek's video, since he captured them with a low-light camera.

Clark Muir, an amateur astronomer from Kitchener, Ont., has some good news for anyone stuck in an urban area who is still hoping to spot the satellites.

"I counted a train of 20 satellites passing by from the urban skies of Kitchener. The eighth satellite in the train was by far the brightest at probably third magnitude. The rest were generally fifth magnitude," he said. "The bright one was easily seen without optical aid from my light-polluted location. Binoculars proved best to observe and count the rest."

There are a few ways you can determine when and where to look. A user-friendly resource is Heavens-Above.com (there's an Android app available). If you enter your location, it will give you a list of the times of the leading and trailing Starlink satellite, and if you click on the date, it will provide a sky chart with the constellations and a line indicating where the satellites will cross the sky.

It's better to print out the map rather than read it on your phone, since the light from the device will make it more difficult to see dimmer objects in the sky. Hold the printed map over your head and ensure you've got the directions correct — south on the map is south in the sky. The arrow illustrates the direction the satellites are moving.

There is also N2YO.com ("Watch Starlink satellites crossing your sky!" is at the top of the page) and CalSky.com, where you can find instructions under "Current topics." Both will automatically detect your location once you click their link.

Not everyone is happy

Though a spectacular sight in the night sky, not everyone is happy about the Starlink satellites. They are aimed at providing improved access to the internet worldwide, but some astronomers are concerned about the possible consequences of having 12,000 more satellites in an already crowded Earth orbit.

 

SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted that the aerospace company was ensuring that there would be "no material effects on astronomy," and that his Starlink team was looking at reducing the reflectivity of the satellites. However, he did not provide details.

About the Author

Nicole Mortillaro

Senior Reporter, Science

Nicole has an avid interest in all things science. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books.

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