If you happened to glance up to appreciate the night sky at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday night, you may have witnessed a strange line of glowing lights steadily becoming bigger before suddenly disappearing into nothing. At first glance, the lights looked like one of the countless planes that fly over campus, but this string of lights made no audible noise and was considerably larger than the average wingspan. The explanation is simple: the lights were actually Starlink satellites launched from Florida on Friday night as a part of Elon Musk’s SpaceX program. With the U.S. government recently confirming extraterrestrial activity, the potential of space seems to be on everyone’s minds. One anonymous student who saw the satellites remarked, “A bit disappointed it wasn’t aliens, but still very cool and definitely unexpected.”
“A bit disappointed it wasn’t aliens, but still very cool and definitely unexpected.”
“It was definitely unsettling at first because we had no clue what they were,” another anonymous witness shared. “It was kind of rude of Elon to interrupt our stargazing, but the way they just appeared and faded over campus without warning was cool in its own right.”
The official mission of the Starlink satellites is to provide low-cost internet for remote areas, with an ultimate goal of having 40,000 active satellites in orbit. As of now, there are around 4,000 that are active, and after Friday’s launch (which took place after a day’s delay), 22 more satellites have been added to the operational fleet. The appearance of the satellites is so noteworthy due to the fact that after launch, Starlinks are only visible for about a day before they disperse and blend in with the night sky. This process of dispersion sees the satellites seemingly vanish into thin air, glowing one second and fading into darkness moments later.
The Starlink satellites aren’t just a display of cool aerospace technology, however. Ukraine’s connection to the online world relies on Starlink and its fleet of satellites. In fact, the U.S. Department of Defense has a contract with Starlink for the purposes of satellite communications to support Ukraine. Because of this, many have pointed out Musk’s personal beliefs on the war—namely that Ukraine and Russia should sign a peace treaty—may have an impact on Ukraine’s usage of the program. The murky nature of Musk’s personal involvement in Starlink creates questions surrounding the exact conditions of the contract signed between SpaceX and the U.S. Department of Defense, which Mohsin Hashim, Ph.D., professor of political science, says remain unanswered. “So the debate right now,” Hashim explained, “from what I understand, is that if this is such a big part of Ukraine’s ability to counter Russia’s offensive, a private person headed by such a big ego like Elon Musk—does it compromise U.S. national security interests?”
The Starlink satellites aren’t just a display of cool aerospace technology, however. Ukraine’s connection to the online world relies on Starlink and its fleet of satellites.”
This exact matter is currently under investigation in Congress, though the facts remain unclear. Starlink operates as a link between loved ones for Ukrainian soldiers and government officials, and also is the system under which the military can launch offensive and defensive operations. Last year in September, Musk refused to turn service on for the Ukrainian military under the request of sending out a counter-strike after a Russian attack, stating that SpaceX would not be complicit in an act that would escalate the war.
While these satellites clearly play a part on the international stage, for Muhlenberg’s campus, it was an eye-opening experience to the sky above us and the capabilities of the technology that inhabit it. “It puts things in perspective,” Alaina Hall ‘27 shared. She learned about the satellite sightings from a friend, and the subsequent political context of their usage. “I wasn’t on campus Saturday, so I’m disappointed that I missed it. It’s so interesting to see how something like a cool thing in the sky can turn out to be something that is literally helping in a war.”