Have you recently looked at the night sky and seen a bizarre line of glowing dots? Have you noticed an increase in the number of UFO reports mentioned in the news and social media? If so, you may have been moved by what many have fondly called Elon Musk’s “Space Train.” line of densely grouped Starlink satellites who are making their way around the world.
Some have wondered what is so unique about Starlink satellites that allows them to be seen from the ground with the naked eye, but this is nothing new. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time for both the observer and the observer and the spacecraft in question. The trick is for the object in space to capture light from the Sun when it is already tuned from the observer’s point of view. It is essentially the same reason the moon shines at night, but on a far smaller scale.
The the phenomenon is known as a “satellite eruption”, and chasing them is a favorite pastime of avid sky watchers. If you know when and where to look on a clear night, you can easily spot the International Space Station as it moves across the sky thanks to this principle. NASA even offers a service that uses email or SMS to tell you when The ISS must be visible from your location.
What makes Starlink satellites unique is not that we can see them from the ground, but that so many of them fly in a straight line. The initial launch released 60 satellites in a much stricter formation than we’ve seen before; Elon even warned that clashes between Starlink satellites were not out of the question. The cumulative effect of these satellite eruptions in the immediate vicinity is a little shocking, and understandably people are concerned about what the night sky might look like when all 12,000 Starlink satellites are in orbit.
The good news is that the effect is only temporary. As the satellites expand and begin individual maneuvers, this long line in the sky will disappear. But before Elon’s “Space Train” goes on forever, let’s look at how it was created and how you can still glimpse this unique phenomenon.