Those Colorado Mystery Drones May Actually Have Been SpaceX Satellites

Elon Musk's satellites are partly to blame for Colorado's drone panic.
April 15, 2020, 12:00pm
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Image: Pixabay

Some mystery drones that confused and worried residents of Colorado might have been Elon Musk’s SpaceX satellites, Motherboard has learned via a public records request.

In late November, northeastern Colorado was concerned with a series of mysterious drones flying over several counties in the state. Bearing various descriptions and light patterns, the large 6-to-10 foot mysterious drones made national headlines and left law enforcement scratching their heads.

In a January statement issued by the Colorado Department of Public Safety, the agency confirmed that 14 drones of the hundreds that were allegedly seen by the public “were visually confirmed to be hobbyist drones by law enforcement,” but none of the drone operators were breaking any laws. The overall conclusion by law enforcement was that there were “no incidents involving criminal activity” and “no investigations substantiated reports of suspicious or illegal drone activity.” In other words, no fleets of insidious drones were harassing Coloradans.

According to an internal Colorado Department of Public Safety report obtained by Motherboard, Public Safety personnel had logged 23 different sightings, but most were chalked up to being “legitimate commercial aircraft” or “atmospheric conditions” with only four remaining unexplained. The report indicates that some drone sightings may have been SpaceX's Starlink Satellites.

"Of the 10 [unidentified drone sightings], 6 were proved to be either atmospheric conditions or legitimate commercial aircraft such as aircraft on approach to Denver International Airport or SpaceX’s Starlink," the internal report said. SpaceX Starlink project aims to provide low-cost, high-speed internet to remote areas of the planet with thousands of small, low orbit satellites.

With the intention to put 12,000 Starlink satellites into space, SpaceX has received significant criticism from astronomers and scientists who argue that the objects are far too bright and interfere with their observations and astronomical studies.

“When they are at their brightest, they look like strings of very bright stars traveling rapidly across the sky about 2 hours before sunrise or 2 hours after sunset. They are very impressive and very disturbing to see because they are so unnatural-looking,” Sten Odenwald, an astronomer at the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center, told Motherboard. “I think the probability of misidentification is very high and the close-formation flying of many of them could look like some single object with 'running lights' or a drone or a jet plane.”

Odenwald explained that the satellites pose a threat to research. With the possibility of 12,000 of them in orbit, trying to keep track of every single one becomes a logistical nightmare, and data and images from deep space will be corrupted as these objects pass in front of telescopes.

“The brightness will be a huge problem for certain kinds of astronomical research,” Odenwald said. “The satellites are brightest when they are placed into their initial orbits but then dim a bit when moved to their final orbits. But even so, they are still as bright as stars between +4 and +8 magnitude. You would see these with the naked eye especially in the dark places away from city lights.”

SpaceX has promised to make future Starlink Satellites dimmer, astronomers are still lit up because the satellites will still be too bright for large telescopes. The other concern is how many people will contact their local law enforcement over concerns that they are being watched by an eerie collection of lights in the sky owned by a billionaire. Maybe the Colorado mass panic situation wasn’t so crazy after all.

The Colorado Department of Public Safety and SpaceX did not respond to multiple requests for comment.