BLACKFOOT – People have been staring at the stars for ages, and if you happened to look at the night sky last month, you may have noticed a quirky sight.
A line of lights moved slowly and uniformly across the sky. Many of you have wondered if it was a shooting star, a UFO or some other star phenomenon?
dr. Steven Shropshire, a physics professor at Idaho State University, tells EastIdahoNews.com that the lights are satellites. But not just any satellite – Starlink satellites.
What she mainly makes visible to us is ‘actually a bit of a marketing ploy’.
The James Webb, Hubble and International Space Station are generally the largest and most visible satellites in space. The Starlink satellites are much smaller than NASA’s.
“They’re actually designed to be reflective to grab your attention. They do that on purpose with the Starlinks. They’re not very big, but they look big because of the reflective finish on one side,” says Shropshire.
Starlink connects people all over the world with fast internet access. They can even connect people in remote areas, even during natural disasters and wars.
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The Starlink satellites were most recently used during the war between Russia and Ukraine and may have played a role in changing the outcome by ensuring that Ukrainians did not lose vital communications.
The satellites were launched by Elon Musk, the richest person in the world according to Forbes. Starlink is operated by Musk’s company Space X, the same company that launched rockets into space. The company’s website touts Starlink as high speed, low latency, and perfect for rural communities.
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Space X hasn’t always had a smooth ride. The New York Times recently reported that a farmer in Australia recently found a large piece of space debris from a Space X spacecraft called “Dragon.” During the Starlink launch in February, 40 of Space X’s 49 satellites fell out of orbit, according to the Associated Press. The satellites burned up in the atmosphere, so no one was injured.
Shropshire says debris from satellites falling to Earth is a rarity.
“That is something that all space agencies from the United States, Europe and Russia are very careful about. The debris fields are well laid out and most launches do not produce large debris fields,” he says.
As Starlink satellites improve the connectivity of the world, many astronomers worry that they will make studying the stars more difficult. Starlink claims they “lead the industry on innovations to reduce the brightness of satellites, minimize the impact on astronomy and protect the natural night sky for everyone to enjoy.”
“They can appear as streaks, which can make it difficult for astrophotography and various things. Space X … is now trying to make them less reflective so they’re not as bright, but anything in space can get in the way,” notes Dr. Anna Hoskins, a lecturer in the ISU Department of Physics at .
The Starlink satellites were most visible in the last week of July during their last launch. From then on, they spread through the air and rotated to become less visible.
Shropshire says now is one of the best times to view satellites from the ground.
“There are a lot of cool things you can see in space when you look up,” he says.
If you missed your chance to see them this time, Starlink’s website has a tracker. There is also a tracker for Starlink and NASA satellites on the NASA website.