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Starlink explained: Bizarre trail of lights in sky baffles Aussies, but what are they for?

The dramatic space age formation of bright lights spotted over Aussie towns and cities prompted wild theories about UFO, aliens and chemtrails.

A spectacular light formation which shone across the night sky last weekend has baffled Aussies who questioned whether it was UFOs, chemtrails, AI overlords, aliens or Back to the Future’s flux capacitor on its return journey.

While the impressive string of lights, seen over Canberra and Sydney, may look like an out-of-this-world phenomenon, it is in fact a trail from the satellites behind Starlink – billionaire Elon Musk’s global broadband internet service, operated by SpaceX – which is now available in most parts of Australia.

Starlink operates using a satellite dish – dubbed Dishy McFlatface by Musk or Dishy for short – which communicates by sending data back and forth to thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth’s atmosphere to provide internet download speeds of 20 Mbps to 100 Mbps.

Professor Steven Tingay, executive director of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy, told Yahoo News Australia the trail of lights we see from Earth were the sun’s reflection off the satellites when the sun was below the horizon.

“They are reflecting light from the sun,” Tingay said. “That’s true of all satellites in orbit.”

A bizarre line of white dots was seen in the night sky over the weekend.
A bizarre line of white dots in the night sky was spotted over Sutherland (left) and Canberra (right) over the weekend. Source: Facebook

In the right conditions, the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope can also be viewed from Earth, he added. While satellites adjust their positions and are seen less clearly over time, newly launched ones such as Starlink are more visible to the naked eye.

“You’re most likely to see satellites reflecting sunlight for a couple of hours after sunset or a couple of hours before sunrise,” Tingay said. “It’s about pretty simple geometry. If an object is 500km altitude in orbit straight up and the sun has not set for that satellite but the sun has set for you, it can be seen below the horizon as the satellite in space is still receiving sunlight.”

In layman’s terms, if a person was standing on a city street where the sun had set and was looking up at a skyscraper, light could be seen reflecting off the top of the building as it was still receiving sunlight.

Tingay told Yahoo there were currently 5,500 Starlink satellites floating in low Earth orbit that had all been launched together from a SpaceX rocket and were “following each other across the sky” in a train-like formation.

They stay in orbit and in the neat line we see from Earth by balancing their velocity – the speed it takes to travel in a straight line – and the Earth's gravitational pull.

Social media was flooded with photos of Starlink satellite trails over the weekend. Source: Facebook
Social media was flooded with photos of Starlink satellite trails over the weekend. Source: Facebook

Where are the best places and times to view the lights?

Tingay told Yahoo the best places to view stars and satellites including Starlink were away from city lights on clear nights when there was no moon visible, as it brightened up the sky.

“If you go outside on a clear night, especially away from the city after sunset, every couple of minutes you will see a satellite,” he said. “When I was a kid in the 1970s, to see a satellite was a really special thing but now, not so much.” Although he added, the Starlink trails were still pretty spectacular to witness.

SpaceX started launching the satellites in 2019 and almost 12,000 are planned to be deployed – a number which could rise to 42,000 as the Starlink customer base expands – with 2.5 million subscribers already signed up to the broadband network.

But the service doesn't come cheap with an upfront cost of $599 plus $30 shipping for the dish and a monthly subscription of $139 for a standard plan. Should you decide to move house, there are also relocation fees if you want to take Starlink with you.

Starlink trails baffle Aussies: 'Aliens are coming'

As the images of the trails were shared to social media, a number of theories emerged about what was causing them.

“Santa getting his gifts back from the kids that turned out to be naughty,” one suggested, “The end of the world,” said another, while a third added it was the “latest round of the Covid vaccine being mass distributed”.

The jokes came in thick and fast, with one more asking, “Hope you have a bunker? I’d head for it if you do. That’s aliens and they’re coming.”

While high-speed broadband was a great idea, particularly for remote communities that desperately need it, Tingay said having potentially tens of thousands of satellites in orbit was an “absolute nightmare” for astronomers, who collect and analyse data on stars, planets, galaxies, asteroids and comets.

“Starlink is the first example of a megaconstellation, with thousands of individual satellites working together,” he told Yahoo.

Tougher regulation over satellites needed

Furthermore, as Starlink satellites – along with others – were low Earth orbiting at 500km to 1,000km, Tingay said that environment was “becoming very congested”, increasing the risks of collisions and space junk falling to the Earth's surface.

He said most space debris travels at 8km per second and disintegrates as it enters the Earth’s atmosphere or falls into the ocean, but there were occasions when it falls on land.

In 2022, a piece of space junk – believed to be from a SpaceX mission – landed in a paddock in NSW's Snowy Mountains and was likened to an “alien obelisk”. The year before, debris from a Chinese rocket hurtled towards Earth, with fears it could fall over Australia, but it eventually burned up on re-entry.

“It’s unlikely something like that would land in a populated area,” Tingay told Yahoo, but added there should be tougher regulations around sending satellites into Earth’s orbit to prevent future problems.

To view locations of the Starlink lights across Australia click here.

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