Something bright and white moved across the sky for a few minutes then something glinted in the northern sky for a few seconds. What’s going on?
It’s not aliens. What you—and million of others—keep seeing and getting slightly confused by can look spectacular, but they can also be explained by one of three things, two of which can only be seen so clearly this month and next.
In short, the conditions are perfect for UFO-spotting season!
Here’s everything you need to know about the many strange-looking bright lights in the sky just after sunset:
1. It’s a train of newly-launched SpaceX Starlink satellites
Have you see a “train” of lights in the sky? It’s an incredible sight to see, but one that’s only visible when conditions are right.
What you’re seeing is sunlight reflected off a chain of satellites recently launched by SpaceX. Called Starlink, it’s set to bring global broadband coverage. Batches of 60 are frequently being launched, which over the next few days gradually separate. But for those first few nights they can appear super-bright if seen in the hour after sunset.
And one batch (batch 28) was scheduled to launch this week … so eyes to the sky!
So why haven’t you noticed them before? If you live in the northern hemisphere then conditions are now perfect for seeing newly-launched satellites in the few hours after sunset and before sunrise. That’s because the Sun doesn’t dip all that far below the horizon at this time of year, so satellites in orbit glint more often, and for longer, as they they catch the Sun.
As Starlinks spend more time in orbit they separate from each other and raise their orbits, becoming virtually invisible. Though if you spend some time outside and let your eyes adjust to the darkness you can see older “trains” of Starlinks and many other satellites besides.
2. It’s the planet Venus, which is rising
Earth’s sister planet is back—and very bright. May 2021 saw the return of Venus to the post-sunset night sky after six months in the morning sky. It’s the beginning of a new apparition that will last for the remainder of 2021 and see Venus as the third brightest object in the sky, dimmer only than the Moon and the Sun.
Many will see a bright “star” in the west about an hour after sunset because it’s low enough in the sky to be in the direct line of sight for drivers, and even those in the backyard getting the laundry in (anecdotally a common time to see bright things in the sky!).
3. It’s a space station or a satellite
For the same reasons that Starlink satellites are bright at the moment so are satellites of all kinds—and none more so than the International Space Station (ISS). Super-bright and crossing the sky as a bright, white constant light in up to seven minutes, the ISS is a spectacular sight.
Find the next pass over your location on NASA’s Spot The Station website and sign-up for a daily email.
The first module of what will be the Chinese Space Station (CSS), Tianhe is now in orbit about 230 miles/370 km up. Launched in May, Heavens-Above.com now has a special page listing predicted sightings of Tianhe-1 under “satellites” on its home page, though it’s not as bright as the ISS.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
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