Wow! The SpaceX Starlink satellite train

“Here is the video I shot, be prepared to be mind-blown!” Marco Langbroek wrote on his website SatTrackCam Leiden (b)log, where he shared an amazing capture of dozens of SpaceX Starlink internet satellites chugging along, in a straight line, across the heavens.

SpaceX Starlink objects train May 24, 2019, from Marco Langbroek on Vimeo.

Netherlands-based satellite tracker Marco Langbroek stunned space fans this weekend with this video of dozens of Starlink internet satellites soaring overhead. SpaceX had launched its first 60 Starlink satellites into orbit on Thursday, May 23, 2019. It plans to launch nearly 12,000 of these satellites; from low-Earth orbit, they’ll beam internet coverage to the world. Though precise tracking figures for the satellites aren’t available yet, Marco was able to make a rough prediction of where to spot them. His prediction turned out to be close enough to catch the satellites soaring over his location. He shared his jaw-dropping capture of the view at his website SatTrackCam Leiden (b)log, writing:

On 24 May 2019 at 2:30 UT, SpaceX launched STARLINK, a series of 60 satellites that is the first launch of many that will create a large constellation of satellites meant to provide global internet access.

Just short of a day after the launch, near 22:55 UT on May 24, this resulted in a spectacular view over northwestern Europe, when a ‘train’ of bright satellites, all moving close together in a line, moved across the sky. It rained UFO reports as a result, and the press picked it up as well.

There were no orbital elements for the objects available yet on Space-Track, but based on the orbital information (53 degree inclination, initially 440 km orbital altitude) I had calculated a search orbit and stood ready with my camera.

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…)!

Starlink satellites - a line of bright dots against a black night sky - soaring overhead.

Marco Langbroek captured the SpaceX Starlink satellites the night after their launch, moving like a train across the heavens. Image via SatTrackCam Leiden (b)log.

Marco said he counted at least 56 objects as the satellites flew overhead. He wrote:

Over the coming days the ‘train’ of objects will be making two to three passes each night. As they are actively manoeuvering with their ion thrusters, they will be more spread out with each pass, so the ‘train’ will probably quickly dissipate.

The objects were launched into a ~440 km altitude, 53 degree inclined orbit. Using their ion thrusters, they will raise their orbits to ~550 km the coming days/weeks.

View from a camera mounted at the top of the rocket, looking down at a stack of 60 satellites, with Earth below.

A view of SpaceX’s first 60 Starlink satellites in orbit, still in stacked configuration, with the Earth as a brilliant blue backdrop on May 23, 2019. Image via SpaceX/ Space.com.

Marco isn’t the only stargazer who caught the view. Karoline Mrazek and Erwin Matys of Project Nightflight in Austria were taken by surprise when, while outdoors for a night of observing on May 24, they saw the satellites, too. They said in an email to EarthSky:

We were testing a new imaging system at our dark-sky observing site in Austria. Suddenly a weirdly slow moving streak of light appeared on the horizon, due northwest from our location. The object slowly moved eastward across the sky, stretching in length all during the pass. A few stragglers appeared to trail behind the larger bulk of objects. The several dozen individual objects of the bulk were soon resolvable with the unaided eye. They had approximately 2 magnitudes each. The spooky wagon train of dots culminated near Polaris, before it disappeared in the Earth’s shadow shortly before 22:57 UT. The spectacular show lasted several minutes. We literally stood and watched, stunned speechless.

All in all that was one of the most amazing observations we had in a long time. It was amazing to see this show of a totally unfamiliar object appearing unexpectedly in the sky. We look forward to the next deployment. We can only recommend it to other stargazers to look out for new deployments next time SpaceX launches another Falcon rocket.

And, of course, others were caught unawares on May 24 and, judging from our email today, were stunned by what they saw.

By Saturday night, May 25, the satellites apparently were already fading in brightness, as they were being moved to a higher orbit. Dave Chapman in Canada, another veteran observer of the skies, wrote to EarthSky:

I observed the Starlink train from rural Nova Scotia on Saturday night, May 25 at 10:20 pm ADT. I knew it existed and had seen the video, but I was not expecting it. It appeared to me like a dim jet contrail, but the binoculars resolved it into a train of lights. I was showing beginners the night sky and they were amazed to see it. Very exciting, but worrisome. This could get old very fast!

As for your chances of seeing the Starlink satellite train in the nights ahead … The satellites are currently being maneuvered via their ion thrusters to a higher orbit; as they get higher, they’ll become fainter to earthly observers (hopefully not still bright enough to be seen, because thousands of them would not be a pretty sight above us). They are also dispersing and so aren’t as likely to appear train-like. Dave Chapman said he found predictions for the satellite train at the website CalSky.com, but warned it is slow; many are apparently looking.

We got an email Sunday morning, with word of a new tool for finding out when the Starlink satellites will pass over your location. We can’t vouch for its accuracy, but it’s very easy to use. Find another Starlink prediction tool here. Thank you, dev@cmdr2!

Also, try checking Heavens-Above.com, as well as Marco’s site SatTrackCam Leiden (b)log. And try Marco’s Twitter page (@Marco_Langbroek).

If predictions do become available, you’ll likely find them at one of those places. And, as always, keep looking up!

Bottom line: Marco Langbroek shared an amazing video capture of dozens of SpaceX Starlink internet satellites – marching in a straight line across the heavens – at his website SatTrackCam Leiden (b)log.

Deborah Byrd

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