NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A string of lights was spotted flying across parts of Middle Tennessee this week, and multiple News 2 viewers asked us to investigate.
“It just looked like they were deadly and in a straight line, and I’ve never seen anything like that ever in my life,” one News 2 viewer said in a voicemail.
If you saw them too, you’re not alone, and we’re not referring to UFOs or aliens.
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The mysterious string of lights is called a Starlink Satellite train. The technology, which is part of Elon Musk’s SpaceX program, provides internet access to remote and rural areas across the world, including parts of rural Tennessee.
Around 4,000 Starlink Satellites have been deployed into the atmosphere since 2019, and the most recent Starlink trains launched this past Monday.
Tim Marema, editor for the rural news publication, The Daily Yonder, told News 2 there is a clear gap between those with internet access and those without, as well as between those who are able to afford internet due to the traditionally lower incomes in rural areas.
“If you want rural people to agree on something, ask them about broadband access. They will always agree that they need more and that it’s not sufficient what they have,” Marema said.
While satellite internet can be pricey and isn’t always dependable during bad weather, Marema said the Starlink technology could help improve internet access in rural America.
“The more options you have, the more likely you are to find a plan that works for you and that you can afford so if this adds a choice, then that’s great,” Marema said.
However, Marema doesn’t believe there is any one-size-fits-all solution.
“This idea that we’re going to find a silver bullet that’s going to solve this internet connectivity problem in rural areas with one technology, one provider, history tells us that doesn’t work out so great.”
Keivan Stassun, professor of physics and astronomy at Vanderbilt University, told News 2 Starlink Satellite trains are able to supply internet connection even in the most remote locations because of their low Earth orbit. They get their train-like formation due to the way they’re launched into space.
“SpaceX wants to be able to deploy as many at a time because it’s expensive to be able to launch a SpaceX rocket, so they pack each SpaceX rocket with as many of those Starlink Satellites as they can,” Stassun said. “Because they’re being released from space from the same spot at the same time, they end up literally in the same orbit, so that’s why they appear like a train.”
Starlink Satellite trains are not made of lights, despite their appearance. According to Stassun, they reflect sunlight which makes them look bright and shiny.
Those light-reflecting abilities can create problems for astronomers while they’re conducting research.
“To do what we do, we need to be able to point telescopes up to the night sky and have the sky be as dark as possible so that we can study the things we want to study as carefully as possible,” Stassun said. “Even when one of these things streaks by, let alone a train of them, it can be quite disruptive to the research.”
In response to astronomers’ concerns, SpaceX added dark shields to its Starlink Satellites, according to Stassun, which deploy a couple weeks after they’re launched.
“They do become quite dark, not perfect, not quite dark enough for astronomers’ needs, but it’s getting better,” Stassun said.
News 2 reached out to SpaceX for more information but had not heard back by the time this article was published.
Starlink Satellite internet is already available in parts of Middle Tennessee, including Clarksville, and it will become available to the majority of the region by the end of this year.
The next Starlink launch is scheduled for Friday, Sept. 8. To track Starlink Satellite trains live, click here.