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Neat To See, But Is Starlink Clogging The Night Sky?

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Courtesy of Marco Langbroek via SatTrackCam Blog
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A train of SpaceX Starlink satellites in the night sky.

Whenever the night skies are clear across the Tri-State, the phone at the Cincinnati Observatory begins ringing nonstop with questions about weird lights in the night sky.

"It's incredible, you're outside watching the sky and you can see these slow-moving lights go one after the other after the other, and it's just kind of eerie," says astronomer Dean Regas. "You think something is going on here, some invasion is happening, but it's really these communication satellites called Starlink."

Starlink is a project by billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX program. The goal is to use hundreds of satellites to bring high speed internet to all parts of the globe.

"Each satellite weighs approximately 260kg and features a compact, flat-panel design that minimizes volume," the company writes on its website.

Regas says the satellites are sent up in batches and there are hundreds circling the Earth.

"You see them about an hour to 90 minutes after dark because it's still daytime up there so the light is still bouncing off the satellite bodies but you're in the dark so you get to see them," Regas explains. "They look like slow moving lights that go from horizon to horizon."

They move in lines or trains separated by about minute a piece. While they'll spread out over time, eventually there will be hundreds of these trains in the sky, he says. There are space tracking sites that help you predict when objects in space may be visible where you are. (Regas likes Heavens-Above.com.)

"There is some problem with this," Regas says. "Sending thousands and thousands of satellites up in space makes the potential for things to run into other things and create debris up in space."

Scientists, NASA and others also have to keep track of a lot more things when sending rockets and people into space. They also get in the way of astronomers trying to study and monitor the stars, planets and more.

"We're trying to get pictures of stars and things that are happening and if a satellite goes through just when you want to get that picture, man that gets you frustrated," Regas says. "There's a lot of drawbacks but we're going to see how this plays out."

Regas likens space to the Wild West, with lots of people launching things into space.

Satellites also go wherever they want to go, he points out. There aren't any rules and regulations about flying over certain places.

"Not everybody is very happy with SpaceX for this. The pluses are it might link us all together; the minuses are we lose a lot of the night sky and the astronomers are a little ticked off right now."