Residents in northern Montana reported a string of strange lights dotting the sky. What looked like UFOs from an alien invasion has turned out to be another consequence of SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation.
SpaceX launched 60 satellites into orbit back in May and another 60 in November 11 as part of the Starlink satellite constellation, meant to increase satellite internet access. But the reflective satellites are also producing bright trains of lights across the sky, stoking UFO fears for those unaware of the satellites and distracting astronomers.
The most recent sighting of a train of Starlink satellites occurred over the cities of Browning, Rocky Boy, and Lodgepole in Montana where residents shared sightings with local news outlets. University of Maryland computer scientist Jen Golbeck pointed out in a tweet that the train could also have been visible in Illinois, Iowa, and Michigan this past week. A Starlink constellation launched in May stoked a similar wave of “UFO” sightings in Europe.
But perhaps more worrisome than a rash of UFO reports, these sightings are distracting astronomers. Gizmodo reported last month that the satellites appeared in images taken by astronomers operating the Dark Energy Camera at the Cerro Tololo Observatory in Chile. Approximately 1 in 40 exposures captured the satellite train. Each train of satellites eventually breaks up as they settle into each individual satellite settles into a unique orbit.
Astronomer Cliff Johnson at Northwestern told Gizmodo that at present the satellites are more of an annoyance than a real problem, but may become more of a problem as the number of satellites constellations increase. The batches launched this year are just the first of a project that may lead to 12,000 or more satellites deployed by 2025. SpaceX announced that they’d launch another 60 in early 2020. This past summer, the International Astronomical Union issued a statement urging satellite constellation producers to work with the astronomy community to understand the potential impacts of these satellites and work with regulatory agencies to produce rules governing the satellites to minimise those impacts.
For what it’s worth, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that he directed his team to work on reducing the reflectivity of the satellites. But scientists who spoke with National Geographic said they’d prefer that these conversations occur before the satellite launch. Fixes like simply reducing the reflectivity might not even work for our most sensitive telescopes according to the New York Times. And the Starlink constellation of satellites could lead to competitors further polluting the night sky with satellite constellations of their own, injecting even more space junk into orbit that with we’ll eventually have to deal with.
All of that is to say, if you see a steak of lights flashing across the sky, it’s probably not aliens. And it’s frustrating astronomers around the world.