How you can see a bright trail of satellites in the night sky tonight
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A light show like no other in the night skies: take your chance to watch space satellites flying over your house every night this week AND see shooting stars
Everyone is talking about the Starlink satellite train, the super-bright space craft travelling in a line across the night sky
Sometimes appearing to be as bright as Venus – the brightest planet in the sky at present which blazes toward the west – the train has been mistaken for an alien invasion and Father Christmas outsourcing his sleigh operation.
In fact, the trail that stargazers have been spotting this week is part of the 60-strong batch of satellites launched by Elon Musk’s SpaceX firm which are appearing in the evening in an entrancing line that crosses the night sky.
They were launched into space last month but their current orbital position has made them far easier to see in recent days, even over areas with light pollution.
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SpaceX has sent 362 satellites into space to date in a bid to improve low-cost global internet coverage: eventually there will be 12,000 satellites launched.
Starlink explained: “With performance that far surpasses that of traditional satellite internet, and a global network unbounded by ground infrastructure limitations, Starlink will deliver high speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable.”
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However, several astronomers have raised concerns that satellites could pass in front of telescopes and obscure images or interfere with radio frequencies.
According to the National Space Centre in Leicester, each batch of 60 satellites is deployed to an orbit which is roughly 180 miles above Earth and then moves to around 340 miles above the planet.
The good visibility this week is due to a combination of the latest batch of satellites being in a relatively low orbit, clear April night skies and the angle the satellites are travelling in relation to the sun.
We can look forward to at least four more days when the train of satellites will be visible, although some of the viewings will involve staying up late or getting up early.
Astronomer, author and broadcaster Mark Thompson, from Norfolk, said that Starlink was controversial amongst fellow astronomers for a number of reasons.
“I totally understand the purpose of Starlink and of course reliable broadband is essential for communication and safety across the globe and there are vast areas of the world without access to it,” he said.
“But on the other hand, it will really cause a problem for astronomers when there are 12,000 satellites, and not just those of us like me, who love the night sky – it will be a problem for researchers and for radio astronomy.
“The satellites will cause interference with frequencies and could potentially cause issues for space travel: if satellites crash, and they have, they leave space debris which travels at ballistic speed and poses a threat to spacecraft.”
Experts warn that unless the amount of ‘space junk’ is kept in check, collisions in space will become more frequent – even collisions with tiny objects can be catastrophic in space, largely due to the speed at which craft move in orbit.
Mark, whose new book 101 Facts You Didn’t Know About Space is available and who will resume a tour of his sell-out show Spectacular Science at theatres after the current lockdown restrictions lift, said there was even more to look forward to this week as the Lyrid meteor shower peaks over the UK.
The most activity will be seen in the early hours (from 12am onwards) on April 22 but early risers will also be in with a chance of seeing shooting stars with the hours before dawn a great time to spot the shower.
The Lyrids are bits of rock and dust left behind by a comet and as the Earth drifts through the cloud, the particles collide with our upper atmosphere at the speed of 27 miles a second.
Mark said there could be up to 18 meteors an hour.
“It might involve staying up a bit later,” said Mark, who himself will be staying up for 26 consecutive hours from Friday morning as part of The 2.6 Challenge which seeks to help charities whose funding has been hit by Covid-19.
“But a lot of us might find ourselves with some extra time on our hands at the moment and no reason to set an alarm clock…”
* Mark is hosting Family Stargazing sessions during lockdown – follow @PeoplesAstro on Twitter and look for the hashtag #FamilyStargazeWithMark, there are downloadable PDF worksheets at www.markthompsonastronomy.com.
* Track Starlink by visiting findstarlink.com
The next times that Starlink will be visible over the east (if skies are clear)
April 21: 8.59pm, look from south-west to east
April 22: 4.04am, look from west to east and at 9.34pm, look from west to east
April 23: 3.06am, look from south-east to east and at 4.39am look from west to east. In the evening, at 10.10pm, look from west to east
April 24: 3.40am, look from west to east, 9.10pm, look from west to east, 10.46pm, look from west to south-west
April 35: 2.43am, look from east to west
4.15am, look from west to east