I just saw the coolest thing….
I read online today that SpaceX launched their first group of 60 Starlink satellites 4 days ago. Although they will spread out over time they initially crossed the sky in a line, very close together. This was how they looked the day after being launched:
(Photo credit: SatTrackCam Leiden)
The satellites were launched 4 days ago (May 23) and passed over Durham last night (May 26) at 1030pm. I didn’t know about it until today but they crossed overhead again at about 925pm local time tonight (May 27). The sky had been clear but cloud cover was starting to move in. I went outside with my binoculars and finally spotted at least three which were clearly moving in a line together almost directly overhead. They each “flashed” at least once which tells me they must be positioned in a manner which causes them to reflect the sun’s rays more intensely depending on their angle.
I will have to find out the next time they plan a launch and keep my fingers crossed that I might be in the right place to see them while they are grouped more tightly. If I can find a link to determine when you can see them at your location I will add it to this post. I know I found one once before but don’t know if it will be up to date for such a current launch, or if it is designed to track a group (the article I read called it a “flock”) of satellites since they will spread out after a few days.
It was fun to see at least a small group of satellites traveling together. I believe they go over Durham again early in the morning either Wednesday or Thursday so I may try to get a brief glimpse again, although by then they may be so far apart it won’t be obvious that they are traveling together.
Looks like the website is n2yo.com and the Starlink Group is Object Catalog #74001.
Tuesday morning update – There was a short viewing opportunity at 531am. The satellites were to pass from the NW horizon, low in the sky, to the SSE horizon. The sky in the east was getting light (sunrise approaching) but the western horizon was still fairly dark and I could see a planet and maybe 3 bright stars. The only thing I saw with the naked eye was one bright flash like I had seen Monday night. Internet pictures show that these satellites have a long solar panel emanating from the main body. The flash was very bright, not like an aircraft beacon but more like someone reflecting a bright light source with a mirror, which is essentially what is happening with a solar panel and the sun. I’ve seen the ISS pass overhead many times but it creates a large, steady light source since it is so big and a flash from it probably wouldn’t be as noticeable.
I will have better viewing opportunities Wednesday at 450am and Thursday at 408am, both of which will cross higher in the sky and appear for a longer period of time. Fingers crossed that I wake up in time and that skies remain clear!
Wednesday morning update – Good news and bad news. The good news is the conditions were perfect. I got out early to let my eyes adjust to the area I’d be watching (the northwest horizon, bordered by the setting Big Dipper constellation to my right and a bright planet to my left) and I have a perfect spot behind my apartment where the two street lights on either side of me were blocked by trees and the direction I was looking is a big open field. The bad news – I saw exactly one. I was more patient this time and watched the area for about 20 minutes. Evidently if I had done that Monday night I might have seen more than three because some people are posting that they’ve seen a small group followed by a larger group. It is now 6 days after launch and they are presumably getting spread further apart (and are raising their orbit further away from Earth). The three I saw on Monday covered an area about as long as my hand held at arms length. I didn’t see this object “flash” (astronomers apparently call it a “flare”) but I am confident I was seeing the right thing. I did continue to scan the sky in case what I saw was a different satellite.
I have at least one more opportunity, tomorrow morning at 408am. The sky will stay darker longer and I’m going to be looking at the same area. I believe they will be passing a little higher in the sky so that may help me spot others.
Thursday morning update – About the same result as Wednesday… I spotted one shortly after the appointed time, slightly right from where I had seen in the night before, rising between the outermost and middle of the three stars which comprise the handle of the Big Dipper constellation (which was setting slowly on the horizon). When I first saw it it was about as bright as those two stars and was on a trajectory which would take it almost directly overhead. This time I noticed that it got dimmer as it approached the highest point in the sky and then almost completely faded from view (the sun would be rising over my right shoulder so as it started passing between me and the sun the reflection of the sun’s rays wouldn’t be nearly as bright). Again this time there was no flash or flare. I continued scanning the sky between and above those two stars but never saw any more movement, nor did I see any flashes. I waited almost a full hour, then gave up.
I am going to see if I can sign up for an alert when the next batch of satellites will be launched in the hope of seeing them the first few nights when they are grouped closest together. Elon Musk (SpaceX) plans to launch over 12,000 of these satellites over the next ten years, apparently for high-speed internet communications. The ability to see future satellites in orbit may be reduced as he is already getting flak from astronomers for polluting the sky with so many objects and may alter the material on their exterior to reduce their reflectivity.