PHOTOS: Why you could see SpaceX satellites Friday night

Local

Photo: A. Mauk

(WJHL) – You may not have believed your eyes Friday night if you saw a string of bright blue lights in the sky, but we can assure you it was perfectly normal.

As normal as orbiting satellites flying at high speeds overhead can be, that is.

SpaceX crews confirmed that 48 new satellites were deployed on Dec. 2, and by Dec. 6, reports began trickling in from News Channel 11 viewers and readers alongside photos of the strange phenomenon.

Here are some of them below:

Since the 48 satellites all rode on the same Falcon 9 rocket, their release in low Earth orbit looked like each was right next to the other and gleamed like new stars in the sky.

Stargazers may have had mixed reactions on the new constellation to keep track of, but according to SpaceX documentation, the view won’t stick around long after each launch.

In fact, seeing them in that state is a relatively rare opportunity.

The Life Cycle of Satellites

According to SpaceX’s website, there are three main phases of their Starlink satellite launches:

  • Orbit Raise
  • Parking Orbit (380 km or around 236 miles up)
  • On-Station (550 km or around 342 miles up)

Orbital physics are complex, but essentially, to keep your satellite from falling back down to Earth you need it to travel pretty quickly. According to NASA figures, the International Space Station is flying along at a calm five miles per second, or 18,000 mph.

When you need that kind of speed, it takes a while to build it up, even in space. For Starlink, Orbit Raise is the period where the satellite burns its thrusters to build up that speed.

According to SpaceX documents, that can take a few weeks. In that time, the satellite is facing a different direction than it normally would.

One way to describe the satellite is like a sailboat, with large rectangular solar panels making up the sail. In normal operation, that sail is facing up and away into space to catch the most rays while the main body of the satellite is facing back down to run the internet services they’re there to provide.

During Orbit Raise, however, the sail is down to decrease drag from the small amount of air still present at that height. If solar panels were deployed, the wind would make it significantly harder to speed up, like the hood of a car opening on the interstate.

The only problem is that when those solar panels are facing down, they’re a great way to reflect light from the Sun back down to Earth.

The lights you may have seen overhead most likely originated from those panels and were significantly brighter than what the satellite is intended to look like long-term.

According to SpaceX’s website, all new satellites will come equipped with a sun visor to help darken the brightest parts of the craft when they reach their final orbit, and they’re currently testing new orientations to minimize the craft’s profile in the sky to catch less light while it’s on the way.

Once the satellite has reached the height it’s supposed to, many of them will have to wait until later to burn their thrusters again. This Parking Orbit will also have solar panels facing down, but once those reach their final On-Station orbit, they will deploy their solar panels to the “Shark Fin” configuration up and away from Earth.

At that point, SpaceX promises their new tech will make the satellite nearly invisible to the human eye, and a lot less intrusive to astronomers.

This cycle will repeat for each Starlink Launch, but your experience may vary when it comes to actually seeing the string of lights again. According to SpaceX, more than 400 satellites are in orbit already and over half of those are already On-Station.

The remaining half should be spending no longer than a week at a time shining down on us, but as more are launched to complete the Starlink network, you can expect more sightings around the world.

Which begs the question:

What Even Is Starlink?

Starlink itself is a combination of new and old tech: the company, founded by Elon Musk, promises to do what previous satellite internet companies couldn’t.

According to the SpaceX website, company engineers are taking a new approach to coverage. Rather than one large satellite covering a large area at a height of around 35,000 km or 21,748 miles like many other satellite internet providers, Starlink consists of hundreds of individual satellites spread across the planet at around 550 km or 342 miles up.

The decreased distance to Earth’s surface should decrease delays, SpaceX says. The platform projects download speeds between 100 Mb/s and 200 Mb/s, with latencies as low as 20 milliseconds “in most locations.”

While the promises are grand, the data is not in quite yet. Statistics on Starlink’s performance have not been published for the company, and rollout is currently incomplete throughout the U.S. To check your eligibility, click here.

The main focus of the program is to offer coverage of previously unreachable areas, like rural counties and areas with harsh terrain where burying or hanging cables is difficult.

In those areas, a Digital Divide has been reported for years. The divide represents the gap in access that rural and urban Americans have to high-speed internet, which many now rely on for employment. According to SpaceX, they’ve been working to narrow that gap with their services.

As part of that drive, SpaceX applied for and won nearly $900 million to roll out coverage to 640,000 different locations with usable internet by 2028 through the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF).

According to a report submitted in February to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by Communication Consultant company Cartesian, Starlink is projected to fall short of its promised capacity for RDOF users, even if the company reaches its goal of 12,000 operational satellites by 2028.

When they made that assertion, Cartesian stated that “there are many unknowns” regarding the service, including little public information and the potential for capacity to be split between RDOF and other commercial users.

While these may not be positive projections, Starlink has been rolled out to Wise County Schools to significant acclaim.

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