A message to SUR’s newdesk WhatsApp number came through early this Monday morning, 9 May. “At 6.20am today, at the entrance to the Technology Park, I saw some lights in the sky, in a perfect line. Everyone was just staring because we were all startled to see them. Do you know what it was?” the message said. There was a photo attached as well, clearly showing a line of lights. What could it have been?
To find out, we asked astrophysicist José Maria Madiedo of the Andalucía Astrophysics Institute, who is also the head researcher at the Smart Project, which continually monitors the sky to record and study the impact on the Earth’s atmosphere of different objects in the solar system.
“They were artificial satellites,” he told us. Specifically, they were Starlink satellites from the SpaceX project, which is owned by the multimillionaire Elon Musk, and 53 of them were launched from Florida on 6 May. They have been visible for the past few days as a line in the night sky, but over time they will separate and will not be so obvious.
“SpaceX wants to have 40,000 satellites in orbit altogether, so it is likely that this sort of phenomenon will be seen more frequently,” said Madiedo.
In fact, as he pointed out, the launch on Friday was the seventh carried out by the company since 1 April. Will they be visible from Malaga and the Costa del Sol for much longer? “Initially, they stay in an orbit close to our planet and are very close together, but then they move apart and will reach their definitive orbit at a much higher altitude. Tomorrow (Tuesday, 10 May) they will be visible a little later, at around 6.30am in the morning, but they won’t be so clear or so close together,” he said.
Starlink aims to have a constellation of thousands of small satellites, orbiting at altitudes of between 450 and 1200 kms, to provide Internet all over the world with multiple applications in scientific, civilian and military fields. They are being sent up in groups of around 60 and can often be seen from Earth. They are constructed with large solar panels which reflect sunlight back to Earth and astronomers have already complained that they could be brighter than some stars and this will hamper space research and night sky observation.
José María Madiedo is not keen on the idea, either: “It is a very curious and attractive spectacle, but it is detrimental for astronomers because the satellites generate artificial light pollution in the sky and this interferes with the images we need to have and the data we have to analyse for our work, so we are worried about it. SpaceX promised to paint the satellites in a dark colour so they reflect less light and avoid such situations, but so far it doesn’t seem to have helped,” he said.