No, those aren’t UFOs over Eagle County — just a constellation of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites
But it doesn’t mean we’re alone in the galaxy
The question of whether or not we’re alone in the universe has been one of mankind’s longest and most perplexing scientific quandaries. For many Eagle County residents, sightings over the past year or so of a string of lights streaming across the sky, the answer seems to be an obvious yes.
At least at first.
A quick Google search of the phenomenon — or a post in the Eagle County Classifieds Facebook group — quickly reveals that the train of lights is not other life forms, but a string of Starlink satellites.
“I first saw them around this time two summers ago,” said Scott Dunn, the community programs coordinator at the Walking Mountains Science Center. “I was caught off guard at first; I think that was the first year they were launched, so we really hadn’t heard much about them. We were out camping up on Muddy Pass and were a little puzzled for the evening and then once we got cell service, we quickly figured out what they were.”
Starlink is a project of SpaceX intended to bring broadband internet access to remote and rural areas of Earth. The project aims to eventually create a network of 12,000 satellites sent into low orbit around the earth.
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In attempting to identify them, Dunn said to look for a series of lights. “It’s a chain of lights all moving in the same path at the same speed and the distance between them isn’t changing is the biggest thing to look for,” he said. “It’s usually going to be more than five that you’ll see visible.”
And it’s quite the sight. Vail Daily Assistant Editor Sean Naylor said he “damn near fell off my skateboard while staring into the sky” and attempting to snap a photo.
Even the most seasoned astronomers — including Bryan White, a Glenwood Springs-based local astronomer and dark sky observer — will refer to the sight of the satellites in the sky as “amazing.”
“Having observed the night sky for over 60 years and seeing the first observable satellite, I had never seen anything like it before,” White said.
The initial launch of the Starlink satellites, however, was troubling to many global astronomers. Due to the low orbit, design and size of the satellites, they’re more visible to the naked eye, but also so bright that astronomers are worried the full launch of these satellites will add light pollution and affect scientific observation.
“Last summer we were blessed with a great comet called Comet Neowise. I took a week off during the peak of its brightness and took over 400 3D images of this wonderful comet. However, most images had Starlink satellites going through this field of view. And at that time, they had only launched less than 1,000 of the total of 40,000,” White said.
He added that as more and more countries and companies launch satellites, “It will totally destroy the ability to see the night sky both naked eye and with telescopes.”
In April 2020, SpaceX acknowledged this issue and said it was working on fixing the brightness in future launches.
Once you know what you’re looking for — a straight constellation of five or more lights — identifying the satellites is easy. However, understanding what else might be in the night sky is a whole other thing.
Are we alone?
Even if the Starlink satellite trail doesn’t point to other life, there’s a reason we’re so quick to jump to conclusions.
“Space is a big place. There’s a lot to learn from space and there’s a lot we still need to understand; stuff we just can’t see with the naked eye and a lot more information that needs to go into it,” Dunn said.
Not only have humans long puzzled and questioned the existence of aliens — as evidenced by the obsession in pop culture with movies like “E.T.” and “Star Wars” carrying popularity across generations — but recent media and government attention to the topic has made it take on new life.
In August 2020, the U.S. Department of Defense revived its Unidentified Aerial Phenomena Task Force. According to the press release announcing its launch, the Defense Department established the task force to “improve its understanding of, and gain insight into, the nature and origins of [Unidentified Aerial Phenomena].”
The task force has begun to detect, analyze and catalog any aerial phenomena.
However, unexplainable sightings of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena did not begin last summer. While various sightings are reported sooner, the modern history of UFOs or Unidentified Flying Objects can be tracked back to 1947, when a private pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine circular objects traveling at supersonic speeds near Mount Rainier. Later that summer, a newspaper in Roswell, New Mexico claimed the crash of a crashed flying saucer, making the site a draw for future alien theories. Since then, many have reported similar sightings or sighted unusual experiences.
“Once you become an ‘Experiencer’ (what the government calls people who have been exposed to the ‘phenomenon’) your life will change,” White said.
Within his six decades as of experience as an observing astronomer, White has also become an experiencer.
“Since I have been “looking up” for so long, I have become very familiar with the night sky. Up until a few years ago I could explain my ‘unusual’ sightings,” White said. “However, in 2017 I started to see very strange objects which could not be explained with conventional physics. I believe that most, if not all, of the unusual objects I have observed are what is called, ‘Interdemensional Entities.’”
These entities, according to White are identifiable as “balls of intense light” or orbs rather than being physical objects.
The answer to these questions of other life and phenomena are hardly simple, but the possibilities are certainly enticing to explore.
“As far as what might be out there; there is a reality beyond what we can imagine. There are habitable planets that are billions of years older than Earth. Just think how far we have come in 100 years; now expand that by a billion years,” White said. “What will be the most amazing aspect of this phenomenon is the concept of additional dimensions, which are invisible to our senses.”