THE UK has gone bananas for stargazing this week with the arrival of swarms of bright satellites in the night sky.
The striking spectacle has appeared over the UK every evening since Saturday, and is the work of SpaceX, a rocket firm that wants to beam Wi-Fi to people from orbit.
Moving like slow shooting stars (without the tails), the satellites are pretty easy to spot – but it can be tricky to know where to look.
Fortunately, we've rounded up some of the best apps and websites you can use to locate the next Starlink display, which is scheduled for just after 9:30pm on Wednesday.
UK sightings are expected to continue all week.
You'll need a smartphone (with the brightness turned way down) but that's about it: Starlink swarms are so bright that you don't need binoculars to see them.
How to track Starlink satellites in real-time
There are a number of stargazing apps you can use to follow Starlink "trains".
But first you'll need to know roughly what time the satellites will appear.
Your best bet is the Find Starlink website, which shows you the timings of all upcoming Starlink displays in your area.
Simply visit Find Starlink (or the “Find Starlink Satellites” app) and enter your location.
Once you're outside, you may need an app to guide your eyes to the right spot.
On the Apple App Store, we'd recommend Night Sky, which is free and helps you find all kinds of celestial wonders.
For Android fans, Satellite Tracker should do the trick (it's also available on iPhone).
What is Starlink?
Here's what you need to know about Elon Musk's satellites…
- Starlink is a satellite project led by billionaire SpaceX CEO Elon Musk
- Musk intends to put 12,000 satellites into Earth's orbit, possibly rising to 42,00 in future
- The 'mega-constellation' will eventually be able to beam internet coverage to anywhere on the planet
- SpaceX also intends to sell satellites for military, scientific and exploratory purposes
- The firm sends its satellites up in batches of 60 at a time and has so far deployed more than 360 into orbit.
- The satellites are launched atop unmanned Falcon 9 rockets, which are also built by SpaceX
- How the space tech will affect the night sky is causing concern as they look bright in the night sky
- Astronomers and amateur stargazers have repeatedly blasted the firm for ruining their observations
- SpaceX argues that its satellites are only bright shortly after launch because they sit in a low orbit
- Over several weeks, the satellites apparently move further from Earth, dampening their effect on space observations
How do satellite-tracking apps work?
Companies and space agencies who manage satellites need to keep track of where they are in orbit.
This is partly to help operations (be that sending GPS signals or snapping space photos) run smoothly, but it also ensures they can change course if their space tech is about to collide with someone else's.
The position of satellites is recorded by multiple ground stations on Earth, which send the coordinates back to whoever is responsible for them.
Robert Frost, specialist on GPS use for space navigation, wrote on Quora: "The locations of satellites are determined using tracking from ground stations.
"The ground stations use mechanisms such as radar, signal doppler, and laser reflectors to pinpoint the position of a satellite and to maintain an understanding of its orbital elements."
Apart from spy satellites and other secretive tech, the coordinates of most space probes are available publicly.
Satellite tracking apps simply compile data offered by dozens of space agencies and companies and present it on a digital map.
Recent Starlink sightings
UK stargazers have been treated to three Starlink displays since Saturday.
The first took place on Sunday night at around 9:20pm BST, while another occurred on Monday at 9.55pm and a third graced the skies at 8:30pm Tuesday.
Brits took to social media to express their delight at the rare events, which are due to continue throughout this week.
"I just watched #Starlink pass over Brighton, UK. Looks stunning," one Twitter user said.
Another gushed: "Wow, what a spectacle! My wife and I went out and saw a dozen satellites and two shooting stars. If I remember just one thing about April 2020 it’ll surely be this."
Reports of sightings were spread across the UK, with users in London, Manchester and Leeds among those taking to social media to report seeing the craft.
Some people compared the dazzling satellites to UFOs.
"These starlink satellites in the uk are terrifying me those m****r f****rs looking like UFOS," one Twitter user wrote.
Another quipped: "I’m seeing the #Starlink satellites but they’re going off in different directions. Not a straight formation. Unless these are UFOs."
Why are Starlink satellites appearing over the UK and why are they so bright?
According to space experts, the current high rate of Starlink sightings is due to the satellites being in low orbit after they first launch.
SpaceX launches Starlink satellites in batches of 60 before they gradually rise to a higher orbit and become less visible.
The most recent batch was fired into space in mid-March, with another batch scheduled for liftoff on April 23.
The satellites have been deliberately designed to be light and compact so they can be launched in large batches.
Is Starlink 'blocking' the night sky?
The Starlink programme is controversial among astronomers, who have slammed Musk's hare-brained scheme.
They say Starlink gets in the way of observations due to light reflected off the the satellites.
University of Western Ontario meteor researcher Denis Vida stated in a blog post last year: "One has to be concerned how will our skies look like when hearing that there are plans to launch a total of 42,000 satellites.
"This might completely deny us to do any optical meteor observations as soon as 2024."
Never one to take something lying down, Musk has lashed back at his critics, claiming the satellites have no such impact.
Speaking at a conference in Washington DC last month, he said: "I am confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries. Zero. That’s my prediction.
"We’ll take corrective action if it’s above zero."
SpaceX engineers are also said to be looking into making the satellites a bit less shiny so they won't reflect the sun as much.
Will Starlink 'trap' humanity on Earth?
There are concerns that humanity could be trapped on Earth by too much space junk in Earth's orbit.
That's according to one space scientist, who says Starlink could create an impenetrable wall of rubbish around our planet.
A catastrophic clutter of space debris left behind by the satellites could block rockets from leaving Earth, an effect known as "Kessler syndrome".
"The worst case is: You launch all your satellites, you go bankrupt, and they all stay there," European Space Agency scientist Dr Stijn Lemmens told Scientific American.
"Then you have thousands of new satellites without a plan of getting them out of there. And you would have a Kessler-type of syndrome."
It will take thousands of years for any SpaceX satellites left in our orbit to descend to Earth and burn up in the atmosphere.
The firm says it's already taken steps to avoid cluttering up the region. It's launching the satellites into a lower orbital plane than most space tech to avoid collisions.
In other news, swarms of Elon Musk’s Starlink internet satellites were snapped soaring over Britain last night.
Nasa astronauts will launch into space from US soil next month for the first time in nearly a decade.
An amazing SpaceX video recently revealed how the company will one day fire astronauts to the ISS.
What do you think of Musk's satellite plan? Let us know in the comments!
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