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That moving line of 'stars' over Becker County Thursday night was a SpaceX satellite cluster

SpaceX has FCC permission to launch 12,000 Starlink satellites into low earth orbit -- it wants to put up 42,000.

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Starlink satellites leave a trail across the Minnesota sky. (Photo by Bob King / duluthnewstribune.com/astro-bob)

To the untrained eye, that parade of stars -- moving from the northwest across the sky over Detroit Lakes on Thursday evening -- may have looked a bit like space invaders caught blinking between wormholes.

But what looked like 25 or 30 “stars” was actually a cluster of Starlink satellites on a low-orbit mission to provide high-speed internet service to North America.

And if the parade of SpaceX-launched satellites alarmed anybody locally, they didn’t call law enforcement to report it.

“I don’t see any calls for service in our CAD/RMS system about this,” Detroit Lakes Police Chief Steven Todd said in reply to an email Friday morning. “Our system covers all of Becker, Mahnomen and Clearwater Counties. It appears nobody called it in to any dispatch centers nor did any officers make a call about it.”

The Becker County Sheriff’s Office didn’t get any calls about those lights in the sky, either, Sheriff Todd Glander said in reply to an email.


“I heard about a week ago that they (SpaceX) were doing this again,” Glander said. “I did not see them last night, but I did about a year ago when the first round went up.”

The satellites that paraded across the Becker County sky for five or six minutes shortly after 11 p.m. Thursday were unusually bright, and were launched on April 29, said Bob King, a photographer and amateur astronomer who writes the Astro Bob column for the Duluth News Tribune.

The brightness of each cluster varies depending on several factors, and the satellites in the most recent launch on May 4 are actually dimmer than the April 29 satellite group, he said.

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A trail of Starlink satellites move across the sky on a Minnesota night. (Photo by Bob King / duluthnewstribune.com/astro-bob)

As for people getting alarmed at the parade of lights in the night sky, that ship has sailed, he said.

“It’s been out there for awhile,” he said. “People did get freaked out in May of 2019 when the first satellites went up -- there wasn’t much news out there about them at that time.”

Those first satellites were bright enough to generate “a lot of complaints from professional astronomers and people who love the sky,” King said in an interview. SpaceX took notice and has been steadily working to cut the amount of sunlight reflecting off the satellites to cloak them from Earth.


“They’re not as bright as they used to be,” King said. Now they are often difficult to see with the naked eye, and binoculars are needed, he added.

“A little over a year ago, they put shields on the satellites, which blocks a lot of light from the solar panels,” he said. “They also reoriented the satellites, so they don’t reflect as much light as the early days.”

SpaceX now has 1,565 Starlink satellites in orbit, and has Federal Communications Commission permission to launch 12,000 total. Launches occur about every two weeks, King said.

SpaceX wants more: It has requested FCC permission to put a total of 42,000 Starlink satellites into low earth orbit, he said.

There is also nothing to stop Russia and China or other nations from launching their own “constellation” of satellites, subject to their own regulatory authority, he added.

The satellites are generally dropped off by a SpaceX rocket about 180 miles up, King said. “Each one has its own engine on it, so it can boost its orbit.” Most end up in a 90-minute orbit about 340 miles above the Earth.

It is when they are boosting their orbit that the satellites are most visible, both because they are closest to earth, and because their raised booster position reflects sunlight more than the flat “service” position of their resting orbit.

You can track upcoming launches, satellite visibility, and a host of other Starlink-related information at the Heavens-Above site. To see when a Starlink satellite cluster will be passing over Minnesota (or other areas) see the Find Starlink site.


"There's a demand for fast internet service," King said, adding that the Internet speed at his rural Duluth home is pretty dismal. "I may have to join the dark side and sign up with Starlink," he joked.

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A trail of Starlink satellites move across the sky on a Minnesota night. (Photo by Bob King / duluthnewstribune.com/astro-bob)

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