Space Exploration Technologies Corp., commonly known as SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, is the biggest name in the space transportation and launch services industry.
But we are not here to tell you about the history of this ambitious aerospace firm or provide you insights on its owner, Elon Musk. There is plenty of media coverage, including hyped-up online content, on both SpaceX and the eccentric personality of Elon Musk.
Instead, here we will discuss more specifically about their super project ‘Starlink’. This satellite constellation project aims to launch, up to 42,000 satellites! At the time of writing this piece, about 120 satellites have already been launched and deployed in their orbit.
The primary application of launching thousands of satellites is to provide high-speed internet with global network connectivity, providing affordable internet access in previously underserved areas of the world. Now, this plan seems massive and it is set to bring drastic changes to internet access and connectivity; quite different from what we are familiar with today.
A project this big cannot be devoid of conspiracies and rumors, with all the sophistications and complexities involved. So, let’s dig deeper to learn a bit more about this colossal satellite constellation.
The largest shareholder and the catalyst behind this project, Elon Musk, is well aware of the fact that no entity before him has been this successful in commissioning, or even planning, commercial operations of broadband satellites on such an enormous level. Since the history of satellite internet is full of numerous accounts of failures and setbacks.
He had admitted, “No one has ever succeeded in making a viable low Earth orbit communication constellation right off the bat… I do believe we’ll be successful, but it is far from a sure thing.” read more
Reasons for Failure
There are many possible reasons (both financial and technical) that can you set you back, before such a project becomes commercially viable and sustainable. Moreover, it is not like Starlink has no competition at all. Other satellite operators are obviously going to pose a serious competition. Then, there are terrestrial broadband providers also to compete with. Not many analysts and observers are talking about the regulatory hurdles (current and future). Plus, the important question that remains: would there be such an upsurge in broadband internet demand, (on which the entire business model of the Starlink relies on), as calculated by SpaceX?
Low Earth Orbit and Challenges
Previously, couple of large satellites for similar applications were placed in geosynchronous orbit by other entities but Starlink is going with a different approach. They will place thousands of broadband satellites in low Earth orbit. These satellites will be able to cut down the communication delays, up to 20 milliseconds approximately because they are just a few hundred miles above our planet.
Starlink is not the only project using low Earth orbit for deployment of these satellites. It has competition in the form of Amazon’s Project Kuiper, Telesat (formerly Telesat Canada), and OneWeb satellite constellation, who also have their satellites deployed in low Earth orbit. And this leads us to the major challenge Starlink would have to face as it develops and expands this project further.
With this flooding of satellite networks in Earth’s orbit, it might become tough for SpaceX to differentiate its own broadband constellations from others in the orbit.
Apart from engineering technicalities, there is one more problem; in fact, a serious one. All these satellites are adding to the anxiety of astronomers studying these major developments. The astronomer society is not particularly pleased with the idea of much more increased satellite traffic in the coming years, raising their concerns based off the current state of affairs.
Concerns Raised by the Astronomical Society
“I felt as if life as an astronomer and a lover of the night sky would never be the same,” an astronomer at the Smith College, James Lowenthal is not so receptive of these ‘visionary’ ideas. He is also afraid that, “it will look as if the whole sky is crawling with stars.” read more
This is not all that we have to be cautious about. In picture comes the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), a billion dollar telescope under construction in Chile. This 27-feet tall telescope will have resolving power about 10 times more than the Hubble Telescope. The scientists believe that this telescope will be able to scan the entire sky every three days.
However, the problem faced by this giant telescope (also called large synoptic telescope) is that it would pick numerous objects or satellites like Starlink, even if they are darkened. This can cause a streak of light, a bright one, which can directly cross the objects ahead, which need to be studied. It is plain and simple that many bright moving objects in the sky are just going to make life really tough for all the astronomers, hindering proper observation of the relevant activity in the orbits and space surrounding our planet.
James Lowenthal statement shows how fearful he is when he said, “It potentially threatens the science of astronomy itself.” read more
The project is still on going and even after all the pressure from renowned astronomers, no corrective response of any significance regarding the matter has been indicated in any official communication by SpaceX until now.
There is a set of four phased array radio antennas which will be used for signals communications. This type of radio antenna is flat and compact but it can transmit in multiple frequencies and various directions, without having to move even an inch. A single solar array is present which resembles a map as it unfolds upwards. Single solar arrays are simpler and keep the cost in check are simpler.
There is also a krypton-powered ion thruster. The working of thrusters is a bit complex as they use charge difference to shoot out ions. This particular operation requires a propellant.
Lastly, there is a collision avoidance system and star tracker. For some reason, SpaceX never defined these two in detail. What we do know from the released pictures is that the star tracker is responsible for passing on the information about the nearby stars to satellites. Whereas, collision avoidance system uses data from government’s databases to avoid known debris along the course.
Working and Unanswered Questions
Soon, there will be thousands of satellites moving along in their orbits at the same time. Although there are still many speculations and not a lot of things are entirely clear, with the start of commercial operations of such satellite networks, Starlink will be beaming high-speed internet with low latency, to each and every corner of the world. Having said that, there are still question marks about how much of an area will each satellite cover, nothing is concrete about the redundancy requirements as well.
How Will Elon Musk’s Starlink Deliver Internet Around the Globe?
Created by: Seeker
Not everyone is 100% convinced about the interconnectivity, adding further to numerous mysteries surrounding Starlink.
For example, a Starlink user wants to visit a website hosted in Africa and the user is located in the US.
How will the communication channel exactly work?
Will signals go up to Starlink, between satellites, and then travel back, let’s say, to the nearest base?
Will it go down the interconnect point on the backbone serving the region in question?
Does it come down to local backbone where fiber connects?
Ordinary user may not be interested in all these technical details. But important stakeholders like Netflix and similar entities are definitely keeping a close eye on the proposed operational features and workings of the constituent elements of Starlink.
Another ambiguity that still exists is the (range of) cost for the resulting internet connection. SpaceX often releases several statements which are general and vague: the idea that SpaceX wants to keep prices competitive with terrestrial broadband.
We are largely dependent on fiber optic cables or wireless towers for internet access. And there are several remote and hard-to-access areas that have no proper internet access due to the areas being too far away from the required infrastructure. SpaceX’s vision is to change this, bringing internet access for every corner of our planet. Before the first satellite launch, CEO of the company Elon Musk declared, “This will not only provide internet access to areas that don’t have it, but provide competitive access to areas that already have connectivity.” read more