Last week, when it was unseasonably warm and clear in the early evening, there appeared in the low sky a string of lights, moving slowly across the horizon and disappearing. Very few people around Otsego County actually saw this, as by habit very few people wander outside and gaze upward at this time of year. There was no record of this phenomenon in the newspapers or on social media; it was as though nothing had happened to disturb the slow, forward-creeping days and hours as we march on toward the onslaught of the more gentle months.
So, what was that beautiful arching line of light? The parade was, in fact, a satellite train—a bunch of satellites in this case, but not in every case—51 in all— that had been launched off the coast of California to enter space and eventually dissipate into individual satellites once they entered their correct Federal Communications Commission-approved orbits.
More specifically, these satellites are part of Starlink, a development of Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX, which offers broadband Internet connection to consumers who live, and work, in remote areas around the world. SpaceX began developing its satellite spinoff in 2015, in Redmond, Washington, in part to fund Musk’s well-known Mars dalliances, and also in part to help meet the outrageous worldwide demand for low-cost broadband. We in Otsego County are well aware of this demand as we struggle with Internet speed and connectivity, though not all of us are aware of Starlink, as it has taken its time to arrive here from the West.
Musk began negotiating with the FCC in 2019 and received approval to place close to 12,000 satellites in three orbital altitude shells (1,600 at 340 miles above the Earth; 2,800 at 710 miles; 7,500 at 210 miles), over a period of nine years (half of them to be in orbit within six years; the full number in nine), with a possible later extension to 42,000. That translated into a launch rate of 44 high-performance, low-cost satellites hurled into space every month for 60 months to get 2,200 of them into space within the agreement of the FCC license. Musk publicly tested Starlink in October of 2019, with a tweet to his very own infamous Twitter, and in February 2021 the broadband service was opened to the world. There are now more than one million subscribers to the network, covering all seven continents.
So, what was that beautiful arching line of light, with perfectly spaced objects glinting from the sun, following their leader? The satellites, each weighing 660 pounds, are launched from a Falcon 9 rocket, which leaves the ground from either Vandenberg Space Force Base, northwest of Los Angeles, or Cape Canaveral, in Florida. Last week, the rocket launched the satellites from over the Pacific Ocean and then returned to its mother ship, a SpaceX drone ship, off the coast of Baja, California. The satellites, still in their obedient line, orbit the Earth between 138 and 208 miles above it, and then they thrust to 354 miles, where they join Group 2 of the Starlink constellation. At that point, they are among the more than 3,500 Starlink satellites that are beaming broadband, and are relatively invisible to the human eye. After five to seven years, the satellites will begin to approach their end, at which time they will de-orbit into a disposal orbit, re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up.
More Starlink missions from Vandenberg are planned for the next few months.