Airline Pilots Couldn’t Stop Seeing UFOs. Turns Out They Were Just Starlink Satellites.

ngc 457, the owl cluster in cassiopeia, with accumulated satellite trails
Too Many ‘UFOs’ Are Actually Starlink SatellitesAlan Dyer/Stocktrek Images - Getty Images
  • Researchers used around half a dozen pieces of software softwares to model a ‘UFO’ sighting.

  • With 5,500 Starlink satellites and counting, pilots need to know all about their appearance.

  • These extremely bright satellites also cause controversy, as they interfere with astronomy.

In a new preprint paper, researchers from the University of Utah explain how Starlink’s high number of orbiting satellites is causing confusion for commercial airline pilots. With over 5,500 Starlink satellites in orbit that are using “many deployment and orbital evolution strategies,” the physicists say, they have led to a long string of confusions among the astronomical community and for commercial aviators. But in an experiment, they found that modeling sky conditions and the right lighting helped paint a clearer picture that could help move Starlink satellites from unknown aerial phenomena (UAP)—what scientists and government officials call UFOs—to... well... known aerial phenomena.

Air traffic is heavily monitored and plotted, partly because of the surprising risk that a plane will just vanish if it crashes while off course. There’s no good or easy way to just search the entire ocean, which is enormous and largely not well monitored. That means anything in the sky that’s out of the ordinary is of high interest to pilots. It’s not only an unregistered activity, as far as they’re concerned—it’s something that could endanger their flight.

The strange thing is, as U.S. Navy pilot Ryan Graves wrote in Newsweek last year, “The [Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)] has no direct process for commercial pilots to report unidentified or anomalous objects in our airspace. FAA regulations direct pilots to report UAP incidents to civilian organizations without official follow up or analysis via a verified official data set.” Graves testified to Congress about a UAP he saw and feels can’t be explained, and he founded an organization to ask for more transparency in UAP reporting and resolution.

Whatever you feel about extraterrestrial theories, Graves is right that pilots from different groups deserve a satisfying resolution when they see something they can’t explain—especially commercial pilots, who may have hundreds of passengers in their care. And the industry and government did respond with new policies creating paths for all pilots to report their UAP sightings. That has led to more reports on and more attention (both public and media) being brought to UAPs.

In this new paper, the researchers detail an instance from 2022 in which five different pilots from two airlines reported the same UAP sighting. They corroborated the sighting with photos and video footage. With thousands and thousands of satellites in orbit, plus an additional 36,500 pieces of space junk that are 4” or larger, it makes sense that pilots will see things they don’t recognize. And the same way more space objects means a higher likelihood of collision, it also means a higher likelihood that objects will appear visually as shapes that look like something... out of this world.

To address it, the physicists made a model to simulate what pilots saw that day. Satellites are closely monitored using databases, maps of orbits, and more. The scientists studied the photos and video footage submitted by pilots, approximating the brightness and category of the visible objects. They used specialized software like SAOimage DS9 from the Smithsonian Astronomical Observatory to study every pixel and deduce the sizes and angles of everything.

Here’s one of the more easily understandable portions of their very detailed analysis: “The video shows that the apparent size of the object did not change during the 12.7 second useful interval of the video. Photo 2, however, shows the object angular size to be smaller than in Photo 1, because a ’zoom’ factor has been applied to the second cellphone picture.”

Then, the team plotted the set of Starlink satellites that launched the same day. They used data that applied to the first of the five flights that had observed the UAP, then used metadata from the cell phone photos to narrow down the exact window of time the UAP was overhead.

From there, the team was able to fish out the relevant data points from Starlink’s trajectories, speed, and more. (Starlink launches satellites in batches that form “satellite trains” that travel along the same line.) Then, the researchers used Blender—the 3D modeling software also used in making things like video games—to view their satellites from the cockpit of the relevant airliner.

The results of this intense forensic reconstruction (CSI could never!) is an image that accounts for everything the pilots saw, with parameters based on all the available data to supplement human knowledge. No one pilot can internalize what every single satellite looks like from every angle, in every lighting condition, and in all of its configuration states. Having a 3D model to look at could help reduce mystique.

One of the big issues presented in this paper is that Starlink satellites have arrays of solar panels that may or may not be deployed, which makes a huge difference in how they look and catch the light. SpaceX has been working on Starlink’s level of sky and light pollution because of the way their satellites interfere with astronomy. Astronomer Samantha Lawler wrote in 2021 that Starlink’s satellites are especially bright and would dominate the sky, making 1 in 15 points of light in the sky a satellite rather than a star or other celestial object.

The researchers in the new paper explain that, while SpaceX is taking some kind of action to mitigate the light pollution caused by Starlink satellites, this does not translate into help for pilots who need to identify UAPs that are brighter or more ambiguous looking than what they’re used to. That’s where a data-plotting and modeling approach can help to supplement and illustrate how Starlink trains, and clumps of satellites or other objects in orbit, can appear from inside the cockpit.

As part of this study, the authors also call for more, and more publicly available, information about satellites in the sky:

“[W]e recommend that satellite operators either unilaterally provide planned spacecraft [and] satellite attitude orientation, orbit location and deployment timeline, or the government should require this information. With this information, models for what the spacecraft would look like to observers on the ground or in aircraft could be developed. Especially for ground-based observers, weather [and] cloud coverage predictions would be necessary for observability predictions.”

With thousands of objects in the sky that were never there before, it makes sense to develop new paradigms for how to track and contextualize them. Indeed, even for those who believe some UAPs represent extraterrestrial technology, being able to rule out the other 99% as simple Starlink sightings would be a big help. Either way, commercial pilots deserve the peace of mind that comes with knowing, for the most part, what they’ll encounter at work that day.

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