Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites are triggering a “UFO” craze

Around the world, social media users are reporting seeing a mysterious row of bright lights gliding across the sky — which many claim to be UFOs. Exciting as it may sound, it’s likely something far less exciting: a chain of Starlink satellites developed by Elon Musk’ SpaceX. 

Image credit: Richard Houle

Last week, Starlink launched its latest wave of 52 satellites from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It has already launched more than 600 of its 12,000 planned satellites, usually set off in batches of 60. They are usually described as “megaconstellations” because they are a group of satellites moving together.

Paul Lynam, a resident astronomer at Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, told The San Francisco Chronicle said the satellites were “catching and reflecting sunlight either in the couple hours after sunset or before sunrise” — which is what a growing number of people are reporting seeing. The sightings are becoming more common as SpaceX continues to populate its constellation space,” he added.

Over the last few years, more people seem to have been seeing these strange lights. In Canada, for example, there has been a notable surge in the number of calls to 911 dispatchers, with people calling to report UFO sightings near their homes. 

“We were getting a lot of calls with the SpaceX satellite launches. They’re a very specific pattern in the sky, they’re not hitting the ground, and we can just explain very quickly to people that there are actual satellites,” Tracy Duval, a dispatcher, told CityNews. We have situations where people are saying that the aliens are coming.”

While seeing these satellites in the sky can be an exciting experience and fuel the imagination (sparking images of aliens and UFOs), astronomers around the world are very concerned about the megaconstellations of SpaceX satellites. They worry that these satellites will be too bright and will interfere with visibility for scientific observations. But for people around the world, the satellites can be a godsend.

Under Starlink, SpaceX is developing a satellite network to provide global broadband coverage for high-speed internet access, particularly for people across the world in rural and remote areas. The service is now being beta tested by a limited number of users. It’s reportedly 47% faster than fiber-optic cable internet, the company has said.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted SpaceX permission to fly 12,000 satellites, and perhaps as many as 30,000 eventually. This is massive. There are now only 2,000 active satellites orbiting the Earth that are key to modern life, from mobile phones to internet. Less than 9,000 have ever been launched in all of history.

The Starlink satellites orbit at an altitude of 550 kilometers, which is low enough to get pulled down to Earth by atmospheric drag and burn up in a few years. This means they won’t become space junk once they die, which was an initial concern. Each weighs about 227 kilograms and measures about the size of a typical coffee table. 

Musk and his company have been questioned by the astronomical community due to their brightness and potential to disrupt observations of the night sky. This is because the satellites are brighter than most of the stars visible to the human eye and also move faster through the sky. This leaves a trail that can pollute astronomer’s data.

In response, SpaceX started equipping its satellites with a blackened sunshade called VisorSat. The company says it will lower the satellite’s apparent brightness by reducing the amount of sunlight that’s reflected. Initial efforts included launching a satellite with a black antireflecting coating, which was half as bright as a standard satellite. 

If noticing a UFO was difficult, the satellites are making it more difficult. Still, don’t lose hope. There might still be a green guy out there waiting for us yet. 

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