Several people in Great Falls, Montana, United States, reported a sighting of a strange string of lights yesterday on Christmas evening. Is it Santa Claus' sleigh spreading holiday cheer!? Are they UFO's?! DID ALIENS ARRIVE!? Some might've thought the lights were a UFO invasion, hovering in a train-like formation. Well, Its not UFOs. The strange train of bright lights seen in the night sky over northern Montana are SpaceX's newly launched Starlink satellites.
On November 11, SpaceX launched 60 Starlink satellites from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The batch of small, desk-sized satellites were launched to develop a constellation that will beam low latency, high-speed broadband internet from space. Starlink aims to provide reliable, affordable internet all over the world. It will benefit places where there is no internet connectivity and where existing services are not reliable or too expensive.
Currently there are 120 Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO). About 60 Starlink satellites could deliver 1 terabit of bandwith, that could potentially support 40,000 users streaming ultra-high-definition content at the same time. Starlink is capable of beaming internet at nearly the speed of light, bypassing our current internet infrastructure.
“SpaceX designed Starlink to connect end users with low-latency, high-bandwidth broadband services by providing continual coverage around the world using a network of thousands of satellites in low Earth orbit.”
Starlink is part of SpaceX's plan to earn more funding to build a base on the Moon and a city on Mars, by offering Starlink internet services.
The company did not expect that the satellites would be too bright, and are actively working on making them less reflective. SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer, Gwynne Shotwell, said the satellites' reflectivity was a surprise, “Astronomy is one of a few things that gets little kids excited about space. There are a lot of adults that get excited, too, who either depend on it for their living or for entertainment. But we want to make sure we do the right thing, to make sure little kids can look through their telescopes. It’d be cool for them to see a Starlink. I think that’s cool. But they should be looking at Saturn and the moon.”
Before more people get alarmed about Starlink's reflectivity "ruining the night sky" it is important to know that the first satellites will only have a life of 1 to 5 years, and can easily be maneuvered to burn up in Earth's atmosphere to not interfere with astronomy. So once the company finds a good solution to make the satellite's less reflective in the night sky the 'older' brighter satellites can easily be removed from low Earth orbit by burning them into our atmosphere.
SpaceX will test a new coating to make the satellites less bright on their next deployment scheduled to take place early January. The coating will be placed on the bottom of one of the 60 new satellites that will be deployed into orbit. SpaceX President told reporters:
“This next batch has one satellite that we’ve put a coating on the bottom. This is going to be an experiment … We’re going to do trial and error to figure out what’s the best way to get this done. But we are going to get it done.”
Engineers will test out the anti-reflective coating first, before applying it to more satellites in order to see if the coating could affect the satellite's performance due to potential thermal changes. If all goes well, future satellites will be less bright in the night sky.
SpaceX is targeting to begin offering services in the Northern U.S. and Canada in 2020, then expanding to offer global coverage by 2021.
They could begin to offer internet services from space to help first responders as soon as next year during hurricane season if terrestrial communication systems get damaged. Read more: SpaceX plans to deploy Starlink into more orbital rings to begin service by hurricane season.