Sep. 24—Jupiter was sitting pretty above a distant tree line in a cloudless night sky just after dark-thirty Monday.
Such a sublime sparkling celestial dot can sometimes lead to deep contemplation of the infinite cosmos, but Sweet Pea was having none of it. Her business concluded, the Chihauhau/rescue mix yanked my arm outward, tightening her leash in a straight line pointing for home.
Turning with her, I rolled my head upward to the heavens, and there my gaze stopped: Good googily moogily. Not, good googily moogily! But, good ... googily ... moogily. Accompanied by the gape-jawed demeanor of Professor Grant when he first saw a real live brachiosaurus in the original Jurassic Park movie.
A chain of lights, aligned in razor-straight symmetry, chugged long across the twilight sky above St. Simons Island. The scale was all off for commercial jets out of Jacksonville, and the speed way too slow for a rain of meteors burning out in freefall.
For lack of a better word, the object before me in the familiar night sky appeared downright alien.
Thus it occurred to me that, at 60 years old, I was finally seeing a UFO. Greetings, earthling. Take me to your leader. Yeah, like that. Uncharted childlike wonder ran amok as this unreal lightshow waltzed by.
Actually, as it turns out, it was only the promise of better internet service flashing across the galaxy. It is Starlink, a "constellation" of satellites launched by SpaceX, headed by one of the new generation of space cowboys, Elon Musk. It turns out there are about 2,000 Starlink satellites up there, boldly going where no internet company has gone before to bring us faster broadband internet service.
And it is not even new. They have been launching these things at NASA down in Florida for a couple of years now.
But never mind. I did not know this Monday night. And I am glad for that. There is a dire shortage of awe and marvel in this world at my age.
At 5, limitless possibilities awaited my little mind to explain the smoke I blew into chilly winter air. My first flight, at 11 years old in an open cockpit crop duster over a Mississippi cotton field, left me spellbound for a week.
Nothing these days has that element of bombshell fascination. Everything comes with a rational explanation, even the irrational.
Not this strange phenomenon in the sky Monday night. For a brief moment, I had only impossibilities on which to ponder. It was as out of place as a Martian in our kitchen, standing between the trusty old coffee pot and the family pics on the refrigerator door; or maybe Bigfoot curbside in the Pier Village, waiting with the crowd for a Sunday brunch table at Palmer's Café.
I was not alone in my fascination.
My friend and neighbor Carolyn Chapman saw it from the deck of her home in the island's Sea Palms community.
"I wondered what it was because I'd never seen one like it before," she told me on Facebook.
Rhonda Gaddy Hicks missed it, but it fairly flabbergasted her husband, Emory.
"He was on our dock and he was amazed," Hicks shared. "He came in and said he saw a UFO. Then he looked it up and realized it was Starlink."
I got the scoop around 10:30 that night when my editor, Buddy Hughes, texted me a Twitter post about Monday's Starlink excitement. Buddy sent it in response to my earlier text to him: "Has anyone called about a long string of lights flying across the sky, or am I seeing things?"
By then it was old news for St. Simons Islander Mason Waters and his son, Eli.
"I've seen them before," Mason told me the next day. "There's a tracker website (findstarlink.com) out there that will tell you when you can catch them. My son and I ran out to Frederica Park one night and watched them go over."
So how did this fly under my radar? I am not a total rube when it comes to science and tech. I was right there with the rest of y'all last year, following every step of the Citizen Astronaut space race involving SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin. And the ongoing NASA launches of SpaceX's Falcon 9 reusable rockets continue to intrigue me.
But I missed Sunday's Falcon 9 liftoff, which came after several launches were scrubbed over the weekend due to iffy weather around Cape Canaveral. The space train that left me starstruck Monday night is apparently an upshot of that launch, according to science writer Lisa De La Cruz of EarthSky. The sight that mesmerized me and many others was only fleeting.
"Usually, people are seeing Starlink satellites," Del La Cruz writes in a Sept. 12 article. "You can often spot them for up to a day or two after a launch. They look like a line of lights moving across the sky. Each individual dot is a satellite. This train of light is generally 46 or more separate satellites heading upward from Earth, moving into their future orbits."
Once these Starlink satellite trains reach orbiting altitude, they are usually too high up for us to see. Out of sight, out of mind, huh?
Hardly. The folks who pay attention to such things have concerns about an increasingly crowded orbital zone, which could pose dilemmas for everything from space exploration to astronomers' view of the broader universe, I have since discovered.
The Falcon 9 hauled up 54 new Starlink broadband satellites on Sunday, according to an article by science writer Stephen Clark of Spaceflight Now. Sunday's launch was SpaceX's 42nd Falcon liftoff in 2022, and it aims for another 18 launches by year's end, he said. SpaceX hopes to complete 100 launches in 2023, Clark noted.
The Starlink satellites orbit at 335 miles above earth, in what the scientists call LEO (Low Earth Orbit). The International Space Station orbits at 254 miles up.
Figuring out how many satellites are up there is a total crapshoot, but a January article by Victoria Samson in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists answered my specific question: "As of November 2021, there are roughly 4,800 active satellites in orbit around earth, around 1,850 of which belong to just one entity: SpaceX's Starlink megaconstellation."
SpaceX hopes to put more than 10,000 of these satellites in orbit in the years ahead, Del La Cruz reports. And space is a free enterprise zone. Competition waits in the wings, an outfit called OneWeb and Amazon's Kuiper among them.
Light from Starlink is already distorting the view of real stars for the Hubble Space Telescope by 8 percent and it is only expected to worsen, Howell reports. Also, NASA and others worry about future delays on the launchpad and orbital zone collisions between satellites and spaceships bound for missions beyond. You know, missions to the moon (again) and Mars and such.
So, anyway, this is what the fuss was all about Monday. How long before it gets old? Before caravans of space trains heading into orbit light up our skies like the Las Vegas Strip?
In hindsight, it would have been pretty cool if that really was a martian spaceship that I saw.