Weather Wonders: Starlink Satellites

Weather Wonders: Starlink Satellites

Learn about SpaceX Starlink satellites.

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You may have seen this in the night sky recently, whether it be last week when you were watching for the meteor shower, or just gazing up one night and noticing a string of lights. You may have wondered exactly what you saw, and I am here to tell you, it was more than likely the Starlink satellites! 

In this Weather Wonders, we will discuss what exactly they are, how they work, and some other neat facts.

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This is a closeup look of what the satellite is. Each of the lights you see across the night sky is one of these satellites orbiting the Earth.

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The satellites are a product of Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Their purpose is to provide high-speed internet to less-covered areas around the world, or even now in more urban areas as an alternate to some other internet providers. If you go to their website, you can learn more about the program here.

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So how exactly do these satellites work anyway? Well, for starters, they are attached to rockets as they are launched into space. Then, these satellites are released into space and start to spin in orbit around the Earth. As it orbits, the satellite unfolds its solar panels and lays them flat in order to prevent Earth’s gravity from pulling the satellite back down to Earth.

Once they are ready to operate, the panels stick outward away from the Earth with its antennae pointing directly down towards Earth to communicate data for customers. This is the process that allows internet to be accessed for many across the world. 

Above is an animation of what the satellite looks like as it extends its panels. Notice how there are some in the background. Those spaced out satellites are the lights you’re seeing. Initially, they move at the same altitude and speed, hence why you see them traveling together in that line. 

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In general, around 50-60 satellites are launched at a time into space. They have a lifespan of about 5 years, which has provoked some concern and how they affect the environment when they are decommissioned and burn off as they re-enter the atmosphere. As of July 2023, there were 4,519 satellites in orbit around the Earth. Each one individually weighs about 1800 pounds, which is near the equivalent weight of an adult polar bear. 

So that’s an introductory course on Starlink satellites. Now you know when you see them in the sky what they are and what they do! 

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