By Duncan Steel 04/02/2020 5


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Space-X has started launching its Starlink satellites into low-Earth orbit with a plan to use some tens of thousands of these to deliver 5G wifi to the whole globe. Chains of these satellites can be seen in the evening or before-dawn skies, through the sunlight they scatter. Here I provide a movie showing opportunities for spotting such satellites over the next few days (through to February 9th). A Starlink satellite chain should be visible from Wellington during the Queen + Adam Lambert concert on Wednesday evening. 

The constellation of Starlink satellites has recently been boosted with another Space-X launch. There are now 242 such satellites in orbit, although so far as I have been able to determine only 237 of those are operational. In a movie available here I show how large numbers of those will pass over New Zealand in the evenings of each of the days from Wednesday 5th February through to Sunday 9th February.

Apart from seeing individual satellites, chains of the Starlink modules have been photographed over the past week. Here is a Radio NZ report. Other mass media have also shown such photos on their websites and elsewhere, such as here and here and here.

If you want to get a definitive forecast for when these satellites (or others, such as the Space Station) will be visible from your location, I recommend you visit the Heavens Above website. It is quite easy to get tables of predictions of when satellites will be visible to the naked eye, and celestial maps indicating where to look.

In general, satellites can be seen in the dark sky whilst they are still in sunlight, though you below are in shadow because the Sun is below the horizon for locations down on the ground. This means that viewing opportunities tend to be in the hour or two after the Sun has set, or the hour or two before it rises in the morning.

The International Space Station is an easy object to spot, because it is often brighter than any star in the sky. The Starlink satellites are fainter, because they are far smaller; nevertheless they are still quite easy to see so long as you are looking upwards from a reasonably dark site.

As I write I need to get to bed, because tomorrow (Wednesday 5th February) I am off to see the big concert at the Cake Tin in Wellington: Queen plus Adam Lambert. The Queen guitarist, Brian May, is rather keen on astronomy and space science; in fact he completed a PhD involving a study of the dynamics of interplanetary dust, a subject on which I have conducted research myself.

And… guess what. A chain of Starlink satellites should be visible from Wellington during the concert, clouds allowing. The graphic at the head of this blog post shows the situation. Between about 9:05 and 9:15 pm a long chain of these satellites will overpass to the northwest of New Zealand. (To see this overpass represented in a computer model, take a look at the movie I mentioned above.) The concert is due to start at about 8:30pm. Within the stadium one would imagine there will be too much artificial light to see the satellites, but elsewhere around NZ they should be easy enough to see. They will be about as bright as some of the brightest stars in the sky, with only ten or twenty stars appearing brighter than these individual satellites. Because they are moving across the sky, and in a line, it should be straightforward for most people to spot them.

From Wellington the satellite chain will initially appear low in the sky in the WSW, getting to a maximum altitude above the horizon of about 30 degrees in the NW a couple of minutes later, and then fall in angle above the horizon before they disappear a few minutes later still in the NNE. The precise angles depend upon where you are located; the satellites themselves orbit about 350 km above Earth’s surface.

This, then, is a wonderful opportunity for people to see this satellite chain. They are stars indeed, just like the members of the rock band playing in Wellington on Wednesday evening.

And what about Friday, when Queen are playing in Auckland? I’ll look into that, and provide an update to this post before Friday’s concert.


5 Responses to “Seeing the Space-X satellite chains from NZ”

  • Hi Duncan – great article as usual. The Starlink chains are certainly impressive sight that raise interesting questions about their potential for access to internet vs. drawbacks for astronomy. Just a minor nitpick – ‘Space-X’ should be stylised ‘SpaceX’ 🙂

  • Just saw the SPACE X satellite train over Auckland ( feb 11th 2117 Local.) Is it possible to get a forecast of when we will see it again…?

    • Thanks for the feedback, Glenn.
      I’ll see what I can do… Meantime, go to ‘Heavene Above’ and use that wonderful facility for making predictions of when you can see the satellites.

  • Morena

    My name is Te Moananui.

    I live in Gisborne.

    This morning starting @ 5.00am, finishing at around 5.30am I saw with my naked eye 33 moving lights for want of a better word: They were

    *all traveling north,
    *sometimes in twos and threes,
    *and what appeared to be varying heights and
    * approx 1 minute apart

    Given your expertise I was wondering were these satellites? I have seen pictures of Box or Satellites, and it wasn’t these, certainly not a string of pearls, no sound, and visble to the naked eye.

    Its got me be-fuddled, can you help?

    • Good afternoon Te Moananui, and thanks for the message.

      Your eyes were not deceiving you! What you saw was a chain of communications satellites that form part of the Starlink constellation being launched by SpaceX. Specifically, those really bright satellites you witnessed in the pre-dawn sky today were from the cluster launched into orbit on 17th February.

      What you described can be verified by checking on the Heavens Above website: you can put in Gisborne as your location so as to get predictions of future opportunities for similar satellite chains.

      Here is that website:
      https://www.heavens-above.com/?

      Here is the link that is specific for the various Starlink chains:
      https://www.heavens-above.com/StarlinkLaunchPasses.aspx

      You could try looking towards the West-Northwest between 6:25 and 7:45 pm this evening (Monday 20th April): this chain will not be quite as bright as what you saw this morning, but worth taking a look anyway.

      Happy viewing!
      Kind regards,
      Duncan