The Mystery of the Travelling Stars

Towards the end of April, me and my flatmate strolled up to the top of a small hill, just on the outskirts of Bath, to watch the stars. The grass was soft against our backs. We could hear the chatter of the birds. A dog, somewhere far away, was howling into the night.

The moon was especially close, that night, and especially painful to look at. A pink supermoon, or so google would have us believe – which felt like false advertising to me, considering the distinct lack of colour.

We passed the time by pointing out the brightest stars, the formations we could just about recognise. Eventually, with the breeze against my face, I drifted towards sleep.

Which was when I heard a shout – my flatmate, breathless and excited. “Hey, look, that star is moving!”

“Probably a plane,” I said.

“No – Seriously, it’s a moving star!”

I sighed. Opened my eyes. Followed his gesturing hand to a distant point in the black. There was nothing. Just the heaviness of space.

“Ah, it’s gone,” he said.

I shut my eyes again. Let myself melt into the softness of the earth beneath me.

“Hey, hey, look! There’s another one, no, really!”

I growled. “There’s an airport in Bristol, come on, it’s just planes!” But I had a peek, all the same.

And there they were. One, two, three lights in the sky. And he wasn’t wrong. They were moving, perfectly spaced apart and in an orderly line.

“They’re comets,” I said. “Like, shooting stars.”

“No way. Comets are fast, they have trails, they’re not like that.

“Or maybe… Maybe it’s the clouds. An optical illusion, messing with our brains.” But I knew that didn’t make much sense. “Aliens?” I said, finally.

Over the next hour we saw more shifting stars, crisscrossing in all directions. Most came in an orderly line from top to bottom. Some snuck in from left to right, disappearing before we’d even had the chance to point them out. We whittled away at explanation after explanation, until we hadn’t any ideas left.

So, the next day I got to googling.

Between UFO forums, and the many, many conspiracy theorists, I discovered the Bath Astronomers website. If anyone could solve this mystery, it’d be them.

I explained the situation in an email. And, to my surprise, we got a response.

“It’s most likely artificial satellites,” they told me. “There are several thousand in the night sky.” Some satellites, they explained, are launched in batches of sixty, so appear to follow each other through the black.

They recommended us a program, Stellarium, which digitally tracks objects in space. We loaded it up, and were greeted with a very bland, very British field. The interface was a little complex, but after a while we got the hang of it. We could select a location anywhere in the world, and the night sky in the program would match the view from that location. Even better was the fact that Stellarium allowed us to time travel.

Mars, bright and orange, to our right. The moon, watching proudly from our left. With our view aligned, and the timeframe adjusted, we were there. The night in question.

And, after a little searching, I’m pretty sure we found our culprits.

Image captured using Stellarium.

We slowed down time. The lights thrummed lazily overhead, and we zoomed in close. This was it. The answer to our mystery.

The travelling stars, it turns out…

Were a trail of Starlink satellites, from SpaceX – Elon Musk’s aerospace company. A dozen or so of the more than one thousand in orbit. Which wasn’t quite as exciting as aliens, but still…

I hadn’t heard much about Starlink. I knew Elon Musk, of course. He’s hard to avoid, these days. But Starlink… That was new.

Starlink, I discovered, is essentially a method for providing internet connectivity to remote areas across the planet through the use of satellites. This means that people living without access to traditional ground infrastructure can still connect to the web and communicate with the wider world. In theory, Starlink may play a key role in the growing interconnectivity of our planet.

But some astronomers are worried that, as projects like these launch thousands more satellites into orbit every few years, our night skies will become cluttered, and the allure and magic of star gazing might vanish. Science, too, will suffer. Such satellites apparently cause issues with telescopes, blocking areas of the sky and obfuscating findings. It’s hard not to be a little sad, realising that even space endures humankinds tampering.

As I continued to read about Starlink, and the dozens of other satellites that orbit the earth, my attention was drawn by mentions of the International Space Station. The ISS orbits the earth every ninety minutes. It looks, to the naked eye, like just another shimmering object blending in with the stars and Starlink satellites. But the ISS is different. Because there, on that iridescent dot, are people. Real, living people, hurtling above our heads, so completely engulfed by the scale of the universe that they’re hardly even there at all.

There are eleven names, at the time of writing, each working, socialising, and living on that single luminous speck.

A livestream shows a view from the station. Sometimes, you can see the artificial lights of our own planet, reaching through the clouds. There’s even a website where you can track the ISS and discover when it will be passing over your location. More often than not, it’s an unappealing schedule. Early mornings, late nights.

A screenshot from the ISS livestream.

A few days after we saw the travelling stars, I walked to that same hill, a hill I’ve been to hundreds of times by now. The night sky, a reflection of the streetlamps and shifting cars of the city below, still enchant me. One of these days I’ll grow bored of the view. But not yet.

I looked up and watched the shapes drift by. There was a seven-minute window, when the station would be visible. I scanned back and forth, desperate for a glimpse.

And right there, above my head, I saw something.

Perhaps it was one of Elon Musk’s satellites. Or, who knows, maybe those aliens everyone’s talking about. But I hope it was the ISS.

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