A ‘train of satellites’ launched by SpaceX that were spotted over the UK have been described as ‘UFO-like’ by stargazers living in rural areas of the country.
The Elon Musk owned company launched the first 60 of its ‘Starlink constellation’ of internet satellites in May 2019, with another 60 sent to space in November.
The trail of lights, in a perfectly straight line, is particularly prominent in areas away from light pollution, including rural Shropshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire.
A number of users took to social media to question whether the bright white lights were the start of an alien invasion – before finding out they were just satellites.
The small satellites will be visible over parts of the UK again on New Years Even from about 17:20 GMT, particularly in darker sky areas, say astronomers.
Twitter user @ysljunhoe said: ‘My mum saying it’s UFOs – literally fire like stars moving across the skies in London – apparently it’s starlink satellites.
‘Love an alien invasion on Christmas.’
Stephen Frampton said he counted 13 lights in a line all moving in the same direction of travel across the sky.
He said: ‘I hoped it was UFOs. Since found out [it was] Starlink SpaceX satellites. Pretty cool though.’
Jennifer Williams, who saw the Starlink satellites from her home in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, said at first she wondered what they were.
“It did look a little eerie but then we Googled it and found out they were part of the SpaceX programme’, she said.
‘The evening was so clear and we were able to see the stars really brightly so these stood out very well. It certainly provided a talking point.’
The train of lights were spotted across the UK, particularly in darker sky areas such as Shropshire and the peak District
Another stargazer, Mark Le Coultre, said the night sky was littered with stars as usual due to very low levels of light pollution in his home town of Shawbury, Shropshire.
“The sky was cloudless and looking at the moon crescent I noticed to the far right of it a strange procession of what seemed like moving stars that were evenly spaced.
“There seemed to be at least 30 of these lights at an extremely high altitude.’
‘I know that it was not commercial aircraft because the single light as bright as a star on each moving object was not flashing.’
There are currently 122 Starlink satellites in orbit around the Earth and are seen as a train of white lights across the sky, as shown here in this picture taken in Derbyshire
Tom Sparrow, who filmed the satellites told the BBC they were ‘quite a spectacle’.
‘It is an odd sight, I knew they form a train so when I saw two I knew what it was.
‘If you’ve ever seen the International Space Station go over, it’s probably of equal brightness at the moment.’
Vicky Simpson took to the Astronomy UK Facebook page to say she saw them over Lincolnshire. She said: ‘It’s the first time I’ve seen them- even my 22 and 17 year old girls were mesmerised.’
A ‘train’ showing dozens of SpaceX Starlink satellites have been spotted from the UK by amateur astronomers. You can just see the white dots in this picture by Vicky Simpson
Astronomers have dubbed plans for a high-speed global internet a ‘tragedy’ as the thousands of new satellites required will get in the way of key scientific observations.
January will see SpaceX’s Starlink begin a drive to place 60 new satellites at a time into orbit every few weeks — aiming for around 1,500 by the end of 2020.
These ‘mega-constellations’ of satellites are intended to beam internet to the ground from low-earth orbit, with the potential to offer coverage in even remote regions.
A number of Brits took to social media to comment on the ‘bright train of lights’ including Vicky Simpson who said her daughters were mesmerised by the sight
Meanwhile, UK firm OneWeb are planning to send up between 650–2,000 satellites and Amazon a constellation of 3,200 orbiting craft.
The launch of the first chain of 60 Starlink satellites in May already started causing problems for astronomers, who said the bright objects were outshining the stars.
The development is seen as a new headache for researchers who already have to find workarounds to deal with objects cluttering their images of deep space.
Furthermore, the orbiting satellites can also interfere with the workings of ground-baaed radio telescopes that experts use to see more distant phenomena.
According to University of Leicester astrophysicist Martin Barstow, however, some of the issues generated by the planned constellations could be addressed.
‘The numbers of satellites do sound frightening, but actually space is big — so when you superimpose them all on the sky, the density of these things is not going to be very large,’ he explained.
‘And because the satellites have known positions, you can mitigate. A satellite is going to be a dot in an image and it might appear as a transient burst of light – but you will know about it and can remove it from the image.’
‘It will cost effort and work for observatories to deal with it, but it can be done.’
January will see SpaceX’s Starlink begin a drive to place 60 new satellites at a time into orbit every few weeks — aiming for around 1,500 by the end of 2020. You can see the ‘train’ of satellites in the sky over Derbyshire in this image
University of Alabama astronomer Bill Keel told the AFP that the sighting of the first Starlink satellite train had experts trying to extrapolate what effect artificial constellations of such steady brightness might have as they grow in number.
Fears developed, he said, that ‘in 20 years or less, for a good part the night anywhere in the world, the human eye would see more satellites than stars.’
The brightness of the Starlink satellites dimmed as they ascended to their final orbiting altitude of around 340 miles (550 kilometres) above the Earth’s surface and stabilised their orientations.
However, this did not entirely allayed the scientific community’s concerns, with fears as to how views of the night sky will be impacted with SpaceX’s plans to increase the number of orbiting satellites from 60 to 12,000 over the next five years.
There are currently 2,100 active satellites orbiting our planet, according to the Satellite Industry Association — and SpaceX is not the only company looking to enter the burgeoning space internet market.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has offered contradictory messages on Twitter in response to the concern.
Elon Musk’s Starlink project recently placed 60 satellites in low-Earth orbit as they look to beam high-speed internet down to the Earth’s surface, but plans envisage increasing the artificial constellation to 12,000 satellites by 2025
Despite reporting he had already taken steps to investigate ways to reduce the reflectivity of the Starlink satellites, Mr Musk also said that ‘Starlink won’t be seen by anyone unless looking very carefully’.
The satellite constellation ‘will have ~0% impact on advancements in astronomy’ and we ‘need to move telescopes to orbit anyway,’ he added.
While SpaceX cares ‘a great deal about science’, the work to give ‘billions of economically disadvantaged people’ high-speed internet access through the Starlink network ‘is the greater good,’ he wrote.
Responding to Mr Musk’s comments, Professor Keel said that he was happy that the SpaceX CEO had offered to look into ways to reduce the reflectivity of future satellites, but questioned why the issue had not been addressed before.
If optical astronomers are concerned, then their radio astronomy colleagues are ‘in near despair,’ Professor Keel added.
Radio astronomers rely on the electromagnetic waves emitted by celestial objects to examine cosmic phenomena — such as the black hole that was imaged in April 2019.
So-called ‘side emissions’ generated by satellite operators can interfere with the observation bands that radio astronomers are looking out for if not adequately mitigated.
‘There’s every reason to join our radio astronomy colleagues in calling for a “before” response,’ said Professor Keel.
‘It’s not just safeguarding our professional interests but, as far as possible, protecting the night sky for humanity.’
WHAT IS STARLINK AND WHAT ARE ITS GOALS?
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched the first sixty of its ‘Starlink’ space internet satellites.
They are the first in a constellation of thousands of satellites, designed to provide low-cost broadband internet service from low Earth orbit.
The constellation, informally known as Starlink, and under development at SpaceX’s facilities in Redmond, Washington.
Its goal is to beam superfast internet into your home from space.
While satellite internet has been around for a while, it has suffered from high latency and unreliable connections.
Starlink is different. SpaceX says putting a ‘constellation’ of satellites in low earth orbit would provide high-speed, cable-like internet all over the world.
The billionaire’s company wants to create the global system to help it generate more cash.
Musk has previously said the venture could give three billion people who currently do not have access to the internet a cheap way of getting online.
It could also help fund a future city on Mars.
Helping humanity reach the red planet is one of Musk’s long-stated aims and was what inspired him to start SpaceX.
The company recently filed plans with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch 4,425 satellites into orbit above the Earth – three times as many that are currently in operation.
‘Once fully deployed, the SpaceX system will pass over virtually all parts of the Earth’s surface and therefore, in principle, have the ability to provide ubiquitous global service,’ the firm said.
‘Every point on the Earth’s surface will see, at all times, a SpaceX satellite.’
The network will provide internet access to the US and the rest of the world, it added.
It is expected to take more than five years and $9.8 billion (£7.1bn) of investment, although satellite internet has proved an expensive market in the past and analysts expect the final bill will be higher.
Musk compared the project to ‘rebuilding the internet in space’, as it would reduce reliance on the existing network of undersea fibre-optic cables which criss-cross the planet.
In the US, the FCC welcomed the scheme as a way to provide internet connections to more people.