Those bright lights over Sydney? Not aliens, just Elon Musk

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Trails of bright lights struck Sydney’s skies over the weekend but, despite their UFO-like appearance, astronomers say something slightly closer to Earth was responsible: Elon Musk’s Starlink company.

Dozens of satellites from the SpaceX subsidiary were launched on Saturday (Sydney time) from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, as they made their way south-east into a low-Earth orbit.

The Starlink satellites entering low-Earth orbit as seen from Sydney.
The Starlink satellites entering low-Earth orbit as seen from Sydney.Credit:Kelly Ireland and Jen Waltmon

The satellites were the latest in a series of more than 2000 already-launched objects, which are part of Starlink’s bid to provide fast broadband access to people in “areas where connectivity has been unreliable or completely unavailable”, its website says.

The 53 satellites launched from the US caught the attention of Sydneysiders on Saturday night because of the relatively new way in which they were launched, said Dr Brad Tucker, an astrophysicist at the Australian National University.

Each dot is an individual satellite launched meters apart, before slowly spreading out by hundreds of meters, he said.

“They always look weird … because they fly in these lines, or constellation,” he said. “We’re talking about a fairly close formation in a very tight orbit, and this is because they want this global [broadband] coverage. They need to have the satellites flying in flight paths so the exact same points are covered every time.”

The sheer number of satellites flying overhead combined with the timing of Starlink’s launch meant Sydney had a brief a show in the sky, Tucker said. Satellites are mainly only visible from Earth when the sun reflects on them.

“You’re only going to see a satellite up to about two hours after sunset or before sunrise. And that is because the angle of the sun can still reflect off the satellites and then back down to Earth,” he said.