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String of satellites baffles residents, bugs astronomers

PHILADELPHIA — A string of lights that lobbed across the night sky in parts of the U.S. on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday had some people wondering if a fleet of UFOs was coming, but it had others— mostly amateur stargazers and professional astronomers— lamenting the industrialization of space.

The train of lights was actually a series of relatively low-flying satellites launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX as part of its Starlink internet service earlier this week. Callers swamped TV stations from Texas to Wisconsin reporting the lights and musing about UFOs. An email to a spokesman for SpaceX was not returned Saturday. Still, astronomy experts said the number of lights in quick succession and their distance from Earth made them readily identifiable as Starlink satellites for those who are used to seeing them.

“The way you can tell they are Starlink satellites is they are like a string of pearls, these lights traveling in the same basic orbit, one right after the other,” said Dr. Richard Fienberg, press officer for the American Astronomical Society. Fienberg said the satellites launched in large groups called constellations string together when they orbit, especially right after launching. The lines get smaller as time goes on.

This month, SpaceX has already launched dozens of satellites. It is all part of a plan to bridge the digital divide and bring internet access to underserved areas of the world, with SpaceX tentatively scheduled to launch another 120 satellites later in the month. Overall, the company has sent about 1,500 satellites into orbit and has asked for permission to launch thousands more.

But before recent years, there were maybe a few hundred satellites total orbiting Earth, primarily visible as individual lights moving across the sky, Fienberg said. The other handful of companies planning to or have launched the satellite constellations have not launched recently and essentially pushed them into orbit at a farther distance from Earth, he said.

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