If you look up a few days post a Starlink satellite launch, relax. The trail of shiny objects in the night sky isn’t a UFO; it’s a Starlink satellite train.
Since January 2023, there’s been an average of five Starlink satellite trains every month.
While it does interfere with some stargazing and space watching, Starlink trains indicate that the Starlink internet project is still on course.
We’ll highlight the mystery behind the Starlink trains and give hints on when to view them.
Table of Contents
- What Is A Starlink Train
- How Many Satellites Are In A SpaceX Satellite Train?
- How Long Does It Take A Starlink Train To Circle The Earth?
- What does Starlink look like from Earth?
- How to Track Starlink Satellite Trains
- Concerns About Starlink Satellite Trains
What Is A Starlink Train
Let’s go back to how satellite internet works, at least from a space level.
Most satellite providers (Hughesnet, OneWeb, Viasat, etc.) launch geostationary satellites into deep space.
These satellites are much further than Space X’s Starlink Low Earth orbit satellites.
A Starlink train is a trail of satellites launched closer to Earth. The satellites don’t have their light.
They reflect the sun’s light, and they are solar-powered. Hence, they are visible to the human eye and more visible through telescopes.
They appear as a train since they are launched simultaneously in batches.
Therefore, they follow each other in a coordinated line, allowing you to see them as a train.
As of May 2023, nearly 4,200 active Starlink satellites were in orbit.
Jonathan McDowell from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics keeps a record of sightings.
He reckons about 3,500 of those satellites are still operational.
How Many Satellites Are In A SpaceX Satellite Train?
It is common for Starlink to deploy about 50 satellites in one launch.
For example, on May 4th, 10th, and 14th, they launched a string of 56, 51, and 56 satellites, respectively.
However, on May 19th, they sent a batch of only 22 satellites, bringing the total to about 4,469.
Currently, trackings have picked up that Starlink launches satellites in batches of 22.
The satellites use a concept known as plane drift to remain in a train while in orbit.
They stay in their train formation for a few months before some satellites rise above the rest to the final position where they provide internet.
Additionally, they travel by train to cover several parts of the globe.
How Long Does It Take A Starlink Train To Circle The Earth?
Space X says it takes a Starlink satellite between 6 and 8 weeks to get to its final height in orbit.
Afterward, it stays in orbit, traveling at a whopping 4.66 miles per second.
With this figure in mind, it follows that a Starlink train circles the earth in 90 minutes.
If it takes only 90 minutes to make a complete around-the-earth trip, spotting the Starlink train in one location is relatively hard.
However, it provides a long viewing window if you track it early.
The time it takes to circle the Earth also explains the need for Space X to launch many satellites into space.
Since they move so fast, you need many of them covering an area to maintain stable internet communications with receiver devices and ground stations.
What does Starlink look like from Earth?
Post-launch, Starlink satellites settle at about 350 miles above the earth. Here, they are still reflective and clear for the human eye.
Since they are still in a train as released in a batch, they look like a curved or straight line of stars.
Their appearance resembles dots in a clear night sky.
It is easier to see Starlink from Earth in an area with less light pollution.
And it’ll probably be easier to see more Starlink satellite trains as more of them go up.
Contrary to popular opinion, these satellites are visible because of the sun’s brightness. After a while, the reflective ability fades, and they aren’t as visible.
How to Track Starlink Satellite Trains
Sure, you can see Starlink satellites from Earth. However, you can see the trains every time they launch if you know how to track them.
Fortunately, smartphones are some of the most handy and practical tools to track satellite trains.
Moreover, some apps don’t need an internet connection to track the satellites in transit.
Here are some good apps we recommend to track Starlink Satellite trains.
Real-time render of a satellite in orbit
Satellite Tracker is a free app to locate, identify, and track satellites in real time. This app lets you view a satellite’s trajectory using the Earth’s map or the night sky as a reference point.
It relays a 3D render of the satellite in its most updated position. Additionally, you can switch display modes using the three buttons at the bottom of the screen.
Here’s how to find a Starlink train using the app.
- Open the app.
- Tap the Satellite icon on the top right corner.
- Choose ‘ALL’
- Scroll to the Space X Starlink category. It should be under Special interest.
- Pick the launch you want to track. We recommend looking at the most recent launches.
- Click ‘TRACK’. You can choose multiple satellites.
If you’d like to view the sky above your location, go to the main screen and tap the button on the right side of the bottom panel. A white arrow will show you the satellite’s real-time location.
Additionally, a Next Pass countdown tells you when a satellite will pass your location. Set a reminder by tapping the timer and alarm clock in the drop-down menu.
Sky Tonight is a minimalist alternative to Satellite Tracker. It lets you view satellites, star patterns, and deep sky entities. Here’s how to use it.
- Tap the magnifier icon that directs you to a search function.
- Type Starlink in the search box.
- Choose the satellite to track.
- Click the target icon.
- Point your phone and follow the white arrow.
You can tap the blue timestamp to show when the satellite will be visible in your vicinity. This applies when the satellite is below the horizon.
Set a reminder by tapping the bell icon in the top right corner.
Star Walk 2
Star Walk 2 is a stargazing app showing sky objects such as Starlink satellites and giving you accurate 3D renders. It also gives you current news on Astronomy. Here’s how to track Starlink satellites with the Starwalk 2 app.
- Open the Star Walk 2 app.
- Click the magnifier icon on the bottom left.
- Tap the satellite icon in the bottom right of the screen. The most recently released Starlink satellites are at the top of the list.
- Scroll to the SpaceX Starlink section and select a mission. It’ll show you the satellite list. You can click any satellite in the list and view its current position.
Use these sites if you prefer using the web to track Starlink satellite trains.
- findstarlink.com website: Sort sightings by visibility
- N2YO.com: Gives 10-day predictions.
- Heavens-Above website: Track a satellite’s next pass.
Concerns About Starlink Satellite Trains
Starlink satellites were observed to be emitting frequencies between 110 and 188 MHz.
The key concern is that this included the protected bands 150.5 and 153 MHz radio astronomers use to study space.
The radiation from Starlink satellites caused static disruption, which affected observation results.
Space X revealed Starlink satellites perform about 75 anti-collision maneuvers.
These collisions will increase as Space X tries to achieve the 42,000 satellites goal.
Starlink satellites’ reflective surface is a growing concern among astronomers. The temporary brightness causes light streaks in sightings, affecting readings.
However, Space X is already launching newer satellites with non-reflective panels. The best examples are the darker DarkSat and VisorSat.
There are fears that too many Starlink satellites in low Earth orbit could lead to space junk.
However, Elon Musk has assured that satellites will de-orbit within five years if they fail.
After a satellite launch, the mysterious dots in the night sky are simply a satellite train. The train ensures bigger areas on Earth are internet-covered.
Since they travel so fast, it is inevitable for the satellites to be launched in batches of between 20 and 50.
Although some concerns have come up, SpaceX is introducing less disruptive satellites. Use smartphone apps to track satellite trains whenever there’s a launch.