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Satellite Swarms Create Otherworldly Light Shows Above Oregon, Washington, Coastlines

Published 04/18/2020 at 6:54 PM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Satellite Swarms Create Otherworldly Light Shows Above Oregon, Washington, Coastlines

(Portland, Oregon) – As Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull put it in the song “Apogee”: “Beware a host of unearthly daffodils / Drifting golden, turned up loud.” Such a futuristic, even surreal sight is now a commonplace thing in the skies above the Earth, where the present seems to have met the world of sci-fi. Swarms of satellites are causing a stir around the planet, and in places like Washington, Oregon and their coastlines calls are coming in to various agencies and media asking “What are those strange lights?” (Above: starfall in Seaside; below, one of the satellite streaks in Portland early Saturday morning).

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Like Anderson’s Robert Burns-inspired song about the space shuttle program, these unearthly daffodils sometimes come in clumps with several streaking across the sky at once, and some reporting seing 30 to 60 at a time. Oregon Coast Beach Connection caught glimpses of more than seven in a three-minute period above Portland’s Sylvan exit earlier this week while looking for the conjunction of the moon and three planets.

It’s an astounding and beautiful sight, all coming from Elon Musk (yes, the guy who’s dating electronica musician Grimes) and his SpaceX program. They’re a fleet of satellites called Starlink, which currently number 362 in the sky but will eventually be about 1,500. Their mission is to provide high speed internet to rural areas, especially those that can’t be properly served by telecommunication companies. At first, they’ll provide their internet backbone to North America and then eventually the rest of the world.

In spite of the rumors, Starlink satellites are not using 5G technology, however satellites launched by China are.

“Since last May, Space X has launched six dedicated Falcon 9 flights for the Starlink network, each with 60 satellites on-board,” said Jim Todd of Portland’s OMSI. “Space X plans to deploy nearly 1,500 Starlink satellites to provide global Internet connectivity. Thousands more will eventually be launched. If all goes to plan, they are scheduled to be publicly available by the end of 2020.”

Oregon Coast Beach Connection (which is trapped in Portland by the current stay-at-home orders and not able to visit the beaches) managed to capture a faint image of two of them early Saturday morning in a park in the West Slope area. The satellites are not bright by any means and thus are very difficult to photograph. In the photo above, look for the faint straight line in the sky, in the lower left, essentially the streak these make during a long exposure (approximately 30 seconds).

These are probably a permanent sight now, although they don’t always occur in swarms, which is when they’re at their most spectacular. Some satellites disappear from sight for days (from the perspective of places like Portland, Seattle, Seaside, Bandon or Yakima) as they move into passing overhead during daylight hours. Satellites are only visible when the sunlight reflects off them, which means they need to be in the right line of sight and angle between the observer’s location and the sun in order to be seen. It’s possible they’re moving overhead at night but won’t catch the sun’s reflection.

Because of this, the best times to see them are often at various points just after sunset or just before sunrise. They are, however, expected to get fainter as they slowly move to a higher orbit. Some Starlink satellites are being built with less reflective surfaces as well, out of growing concerns they’ll interfere with astronomy discoveries and research. Between that and the higher orbits it’s entirely possible many of them will fade away from sight.

Todd said if you would like to try and see the Starlink satellites, check the website Heavens Above (heavens-above.com), and then select 'Starlink passes for all objects from a launch' for the calculated sightings. Each launch of Starlink (Starlink 1, Starlink 2, Starlink 3, Starlink 4) has periods of sighting opportunities. For example, with the Starlink 4 Launch, from now through May 9 they will be visible during the evenings near midnight. Soon, Starlink 5 will be launched in late April and new list of sighting times will be available soon after.

“For about 6 minutes each, the 60 satellites appear as a ‘moving train’ of moderately faint magnitude points of light between +2 to +4, near the brightness of the stars in Ursa Minor,” Todd said.

Revolving around the Earth every 90 minutes, their motion varies greatly, appearing from west to east at anything from 20 to 40 degrees above the horizon. Todd suggests getting away from bright city lights.


SpaceX’s fleet of Starlink satellites also rather sadly herald the end of something awesome in the skies: the Iridium flare. This photo above is of an Iridium flare over Manzanita, which happens when these older satellites catch a glint of the sun and are rather bright. They’re often mistaken for meteors.

“The beloved sightings of Iridium flares are nearly gone from Earth’s night skies, as the original set of 66 Iridium communications satellites have been decommissioned in 2019 and are being allowed to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere,” Todd said.

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