A satellite tracker in the Netherlands has captured stunning video of dozens of SpaceX Starlink satellites passing overhead. Launched together late last week, the chain of satellites looked like a giant, brightly lit train chugging away in the night sky—a rare sight that understandably prompted UFO sightings.
Marco Langbroek, a spy satellite tracker and astronomer, spotted the string of Starlink satellites from a tracking station located in Leiden, the Netherlands. Using data from last week’s launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, he calculated a probable search orbit, got his camera ready, and was duly rewarded.
Just before 1:00 a.m. local time on 25 May, the Starlink train drifted into Langbroek’s view. The satellites had only recently been deployed and were still parked in orderly, soldier-like formation. On his website, SatTrackCam Leiden (b)log, Langbroek wrote:
My search orbit turned out to be not too bad: very close in sky track, and with the objects passing some 3 minutes early on the predictions. And what a SPECTACULAR view it was!
It started with two faint, flashing objects moving into the field of view. 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...).
Langbroek uploaded the video to Vimeo, writing on his site, “be prepared to be mind-blown!”
Launched from Cape Canaveral in the US state of Florida last week, these 60 satellites are the first build-out of Elon Musk’s Starlink internet constellation. Eventually, the plan is for this telecommunications system to provide low-cost broadband internet access to paying customers around the planet, including remote areas where internet service is hard to come by. Starlink won’t reach “significant operational capacity” until at least 800 satellites are placed in orbit, so the private company still has a way to go.
Late last week, the 60 Starlink satellites, each weighing 500 pounds (227 kg), were placed in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) at an altitude of 400 kilometres (250 miles). The intended orbit is much higher. Accordingly, each satellite is equipped with a Hall ion thruster, which will enable the units to adjust their positions in orbit, hold an intended altitude, and even deorbit themselves when the time comes. SpaceX doesn’t expect these satellites to last more than five years, after which time they’ll dip back into Earth’s atmosphere and disintegrate during reentry; SpaceX intends to replace old satellites with newer models over the course of the project.
Importantly, this Starlink train is a temporary feature. The satellites will drift further and further apart with each successive orbit of Earth. This train, as Langbroek wrote at his website, “will probably quickly dissipate.”
Langbroek wasn’t the only person to see the amazing sight; commenters at his website said they saw the formation in the UK, the US, Australia, Canada, and elsewhere. Understandably, the strange sight prompted concerns of UFOs, as AFP reported via CTV News:
Shortly afterwards, Dutch website www.ufomeldpunt.nl was inundated with more than 150 sighting reports, with astonished spotters describing a “bizarre train of stars or lights moving across the skies at constant speed.”
“There’s a long line of lights. Faster than a plane. Huh?” one spotter reported, while another called it a “star caravan” and one saying “I have it on film”.
One spotter simply texted: “WTF?”
“I didn’t know what to make of it,” an unnamed witness later told the NOS public broadcaster.
“Is it Russia attacking the US? Are they UFOs? Seriously, I didn’t know,” the witness said.
Thankfully it wasn’t an alien invasion—but this likely won’t be the last Starlink train we’ll get to see, and as a result, not the last time we’ll experience a wave of related UFO sightings. SpaceX needs least 800 Starlink satellites in orbit to gain full functionality of the system, and a total of 1,000 for the project to become economically viable for the company. Incredibly, Elon Musk also envisions as many as 12,000 Starlink satellites as part of the constellation. If that’s true, we can expect many more transient Starlink trains in the coming months and years.
Featured image: Marco Langbroek/Gizmodo