What’s the Starlink Train?

If you enjoy the occasional spotting of a satellite or the International Space Station zipping across the night sky, you will go bananas over the newest overhead spectacular, the Starlink train. Although I was generally aware of this recent space venture, I saw a notice about its being clearly visible over Arkansas this week, and it piqued my interest. What I saw was the most surreal sight I’ve ever witnessed in the night sky. Here’s what I’ve learned about this mystical orbital phenomenon.

Over the last five years, Elon Musk’s SpaceX enterprise has been developing a unique satellite network designed to create a whole new concept in internet connection and communication. This breakthrough may be the answer to households and nations underserved in cyberspace access. The ultimate goal of SpaceX is to cover the entire planet with thousands of small satellites leaving not a square mile anywhere without internet connection. Additionally, plans are already on the table for unlimited cellular phone coverage from this system.

Approximately 5,000 satellites are already in low earth orbit (about 340 miles above the earth) with thousands of internet subscribers in the test phase. SpaceX plans to eventually have 12,000 of these satellites in stationary orbit covering the earth. There is even strategic planning that envisions over 40,000 Starlink satellites. The satellites are only 8’ x 4’ x 4” with 60 feet high solar panels attached (See lower photo above).  Each weighs 573 pounds. Future satellites will be considerably larger. Up to 30 stacked satellites at a time are rocket-launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, every two or three weeks and placed into orbit.

Once in orbit, the satellites carried by each launch vehicle are all released in a manner that lines them up in a row 75 miles apart at about 248 miles above the earth. From earth, at a location near their orbit and on a clear night, this “Starlink train” appears like 30 or so stars or planets perfectly aligned moving rather rapidly across the sky (See upper photo above). This “train” circles the earth every 95 minutes at 17,000 miles-per-hour eventually traveling over almost every location on the globe before dispersing to assigned position higher in space. The space trains remain in that in-line mode for a few months of preliminary operation and testing before being commanded by SpaceX to split up, spread out, and climb about 100 miles higher to their permanent positions. They then become part of the integrative network that will ultimately cover the entire earth. These science-fiction-like real maneuvers can be observed on a regular schedule just about anywhere for a few months after every launch. At any given time, there are approximately 20 trains of about 30 satellites each in orbit crisscrossing over the earth awaiting dispersal into operational orbit. Many lower train orbits in viewer proximity are obscured by clouds or haze as well as being too near the horizon to be easily seen. However, over a period of several days, anyone at any location is likely to have a clear view of the amazing sight, although it may require setting the alarm for the wee hours of the morning. A free app is available that gives the times of the clearest visibility of the train for particular areas. It is called “Find Starlink Satellites.” Or, one can go to www.findstarlink.com. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed once you see it. The wow!-factor is absolutely worth the inconvenience.

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