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UFOs spotted over Washington have a very boring explanation

Published May 5th, 2021 6:06PM EDT
spacex starlink
Image: SpaceX

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If you’re a Washington state resident, this might sound familiar: Streaks of otherworldly light were spotted in the skies above western Washington late Tuesday night, and residents were quick to record what could only be described as UFOs. This same thing happened a number of weeks ago and it turned out to be debris from SpaceX’s recent Starlink satellite launch. It happened again this week and, well, it looks like history is repeating itself.

As local news outlets reported, sightings of the lights flooded social media, with residents wondering what they were seeing and some suggesting it might be extraterrestrial spacecraft. Unfortunately for all you alien hunters out there, the explanation of this recent sighting is just as mundane as the previous one. SpaceX launched a Starlink mission yesterday, delivering another batch of its tiny communications satellites into orbit, and the bright streak of light moving across the sky was just sunlight being reflected off of the satellites back down to Earth.

The reports of sightings began to pop up around 9:00 p.m. local time and were largely the same. Witnesses said they say a line of lights moving across the sky as one, almost as though they were part of a singular structure. This matches up well with what SpaceX’s Starlink satellite deployments look like.

When a Starlink mission is launched, the rocket pushes up to 60 of the tiny satellites skyward. At the appropriate time, it releases all of the satellites at once, and as they slowly spread out they form a line. This shape travels through the sky high above our heads and eventually, SpaceX spreads them out so they can join the larger Starlink grid. At first, however, they might look like one solid line of lights, and can certainly be mistaken for a single object.

SpaceX’s Starlink communications network is the company’s big bet on its own future in the communications industry. The goal is to be able to provide fast and stable internet access to anyone that wants it, regardless of their proximity to a population center or cable/fiber infrastructure. The company is already in a beta testing phase and has permission to provide its services in North America.

The plan is ambitious, and while SpaceX has already launched over 1,300 of its Starlink satellites, it’s going to need a lot more if it wants to provide the world with high-speed data access. So far, SpaceX has permission to launch up to 12,000 satellites and has requested clearance to launch up to 30,000 more. With each Starlink launch adding 60 (or fewer) satellites to the tally, it’s going to be a while before SpaceX reaches that figure, but future missions using SpaceX’s Starship could allow for even larger batches to be launched and potentially speed things up a bit.

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