April 20, 2020: For the first time, SpaceX’s controversial Starlink satellites have been photographed by astronauts onboard the International Space Station. Here they are, photo-bombing a display of aurora australis on April 13, 2020:
The ISS was flying over the southern Indian Ocean when the sighting occurred with cameras pointing generally south toward Antarctica. At the time, a minor stream of solar wind was buffeting Earth’s magnetic field, sparking auroras over the frozen continent. The Starlink train stretches all the way from the twilight-blue horizon to the starry sky high above the aurora layer.
Dutch satellite expert Marco Langbroek identified the Starlink satellites and labeled the original NASA image. “These are all objects from the 17 February 2020 launch— a.k.a. ‘Starlink 4,'” Langbroek wrote in his blog.
Starlink is a new venture by SpaceX, which aims to surround Earth with satellites and beam affordable internet to remote locations all over the world. It is controversial because of its potential effect on the night sky. Just after launch, Starlink satellites easily can be seen with the unaided eye, swarming across stars and planets familiar to backyard astronomers. Scott Tucker of Tucson, Arizona, was photographing Venus on the evening of April 17th when this happened:
“I watched 41 Starlink satellites from the most recent launch pass by Venus during late twilight,” says Tucker. “One of them even flared like an Iridium satellite! It got to magnitude -2 for a few seconds.”
Newly-launched Starlink satellites eventually dim as they approach operational orbits 550 km above Earth–but even then they can interfere with research astronomy. Big telescopes have no trouble detecting Starlink satellites no matter how high they go. The fact that SpaceX plans to launch at least 12,000 of them has prompted the International Astronomical Union to sound the alarm.
So far, there are 360 Starlinks into Earth orbit, a tiny fraction of the ultimate total, yet still a large number. Accidental sightings have become so common that we now have an entire photo gallery of Starlink sightings. Browse the collection and see what you think.