Well after a successful view of the Transit of Mercury, as described in the November 11, 2019 blog post, it seemed like it was just going to be a relaxing walk with Astronomer Assistants Danny and Ruby, but no, the early nighttime view had a strange long string of lights in the Orange County city lights polluted view. What were they?
Resident Astronomer Peggy and I were just out for an early evening walk with Astronomer Assistants Danny and Ruby, when Peggy said, "Wow what is that strange bunch of lights in the sky?" Hmm, I don't know, maybe it is some sort of string of lights towed by an aircraft? Nope, didn't appear to be that. Check out the iPhone image of the lights below. This image was taken at 5:57 PST and the lights were moving, at an apparent satellite speed, across the sky towards the south east. You can also make out the bright dot of light as Saturn.
|What is this long line of lights in the sky in Orange County city lights view with Saturn? (Source: Palmia Observatory)|
I wondered if this was part of the SpaceX launch of 60 Starlink satellites back on May 23, 2019, but the satellites were supposed to have been dispersed out of the line by then. You can read all about that launch at: https://spacenews.com/spacex-launches-60-starlink-satellites-begins-constellation-buildout/
So what is this strange nighttime view of a line of lights now? It turns out that after a bit of internet searching we find that SpaceX had just launched, that morning, another batch of 60 Starlink satellites from Kennedy Space Center. You can see some of the details in the SpaceX news release below. You can also follow up on other details of the Starlink Mission at: https://www.spacex.com/webcast
|Well, the lights seem to be the Starlink Satellites just launched from KSC (Source: SpaceX.com)|
SpaceX also provided an inside photograph of the 60 Starlink satellites tucked away inside the fairing of the Falcon 9 rocket. You can count that the satellites are stacked in two columns of 30 each. The satellites will travel in a line for a while and then under their own separate Hall thruster electric propulsion will each move into their final orbital position. So it is not clear how many more nights we will be able to see this long string of lights in the night sky.
|60 Starlink Satellites inside the fairing of a Falcon 9 rocket (Source: SpaceX.com)|
Each satellite, weighing in at about 260 kg, has multiple antennas to enable interconnect connectivity around the world. This whole system of orbiting satellites bringing wireless internet connectivity to just about the whole world is another part of Elon's dreaming about the world and the possibilities that come with lower cost access to space. Way to go, Elon!
|Another view of the 60 Starlink satellites as to be packaged in Falcon 9 (Source: SpaceX.com)|
In case you were worried about what happens to all of these satellites, not only these 120 satellites so far lauched, but the planned thousands of additional Starlink satellites to yet come, and if they won't contribute to a mass of space junk clouding up the available orbital space. It turns out that these satellites, all with the approval of the FCC and others, are in lower Earth orbits and will be commanded to fall out of orbit with their onboard Hall thrusters, or if they fail, then naturally decay and fall out of orbit within a couple of years.
|The whole Starlink constellation will be in low earth orbit (Source: Starlink.com)|
Now if this ambitious plan of launching thousands of satellites is not enough, yesterday's launch was also a demonstration of SpaceX's continuing program of lowering the cost of getting into space. This November 11 launch for instance was the fourth time that the first stage booster rocket was used. It had previously been used to launch three missions into space. You can see the first stage booster successfully returning and landing in the photo below. In addition, the fairing, that protects the satellites until the rocket gets outside the atmosphere, was also a second hand one and will be recovered and used again. All of these SpaceX innovations are driving the cost of access to space lower and lower. Again, way to go, Elon!
|After the Starlink satellite launch on November 11, the Falcon 9 booster lands back in Florida (Source: SpaceX.com)|