Imagine you’re in the middle of nowhere, hundreds of miles away from civilization. This scenario would probably be easier for you to picture if you think back to a time when you were completely without internet — no Wi-Fi, no mobile data, nothing. Now imagine that this was the situation you lived in every single day. While that may be hard for a lot of people to visualize, to others, it’s reality every day. And that’s one of the reasons Starlink was formed.
Aerospace company, SpaceX is at the center of the Starlink project. According to the company’s CEO Elon Musk, there is a considerable unmet demand for low-cost global broadband capabilities. And in truth, Elon was completely right. There may be high-speed Wi-Fi in practically every home, restaurant and café, and urban area. But that’s not the case everywhere. In some remote or rural areas and maybe some locations that have been hit by natural disasters such as hurricanes or wildfires, internet connection is at best slow and unreliable. But sometimes, it’s completely unavailable. To solve this problem for those living in such underserved areas, SpaceX launched the Starlink project. In addition to rescuing people living in internet deprived areas, Starlink also aims to provide internet service at competitive prices even to those in urban areas.
Starlink is a constellation of internet satellites that work together with receivers on Earth. The constellation currently consists of more than one thousand satellites. SpaceX plans to get that number up to 12,000 and maybe 42,000 later on. Compared to the traditional satellites used by other internet providers, the Starlink satellites are more compact and light, weighing only 570 pounds. Another difference between Starlink’s mass-produced small satellites and the satellites other satellite internet service providers use, is their location in space. Starlink’s thousands of satellites are located in low Earth Orbit (LEO), which is just about 350 miles above Earth. That’s over 60 times closer to the Earth than the traditional communication satellites. Those orbit Earth at about 22,000 miles away from the planet.
Starlink satellites are relatively close to the Earth. As a result, Starlink can potentially provide its users with an internet connection that has a much lower latency than is currently available with traditional satellite internet connection. Usually, because satellites are far from the Earth, data takes a while to be sent from one point to another. This high latency causes slow internet connection and poor performance for activities like video calls and online gaming.
Not The First Time
SpaceX’s ambitious project isn’t the first of its kind. In fact, in 2015, when Elon Musk, CEO of the company, announced the satellite internet project SpaceX would be embarking on, another entrepreneur announced a similar project that same week. This other project would be named OneWeb. About five years later in 2020, OneWeb, which planned to start off with about 650 satellites in its constellation and had even already secured communication frequency licenses, went bankrupt.
The previous failures of similar projects clearly indicated to SpaceX that accomplishing their plan would not be a hitch-fee one. In addition to the people that spoke up about the Starlink project not being likely to hold up as a successful business, Elon Musk himself publicly expressed his awareness of that fact. Nonetheless, SpaceX went on with the project.
Product development began in 2015, and in February 2018, two prototype test satellites were launched. In May 2019, the company deployed additional test satellites, and eventually, 60 operational ones were launched into space.
SpaceX has plans to begin offering their services all over the world by late 2021 or 2022. But, they started a private beta test known as the “Better Than Nothing” beta operation in August 2020. The company selected a few people from those who registered their interest to join in through their website. Participants in the beta test had to pay an upfront cost of about $500 dollars for the router and other hardware. In addition to those equipment costs, the monthly subscription costs $99. This is significantly cheaper than current, fully functioning satellite internet service providers.
According to Starlink, beta testers should experience download speeds between 50 and 150Mb/s and a very low latency of just 40ms or less. This is much faster when compared to the current satellite internet latency of about 600ms. Even with these record-breaking numbers, SpaceX estimates that the internet speed will become much faster after the company has launched more satellites, set up other equipment, and begun operation fully.
Sending Up Satellites
SpaceX has been sending the small satellites into space using the company’s reusable Falcon 9 rockets. They are sending up 60 satellites at a time. The total cost of development and buildout of the Starlink constellation has been estimated to be about $10 billion. If the constellation goes as planned and SpaceX is able to pull it off and maintain what progress they will make, then the project could potentially bring in billions of dollars in revenue for the company. This will help them realize their even more ambitious dream to set up human colonies on Mars.
Whether it’s the thought of humans living on Mars or because of access to super-fast internet regardless of what part of the world one is in, many people would definitely be excited about the success of Starlink. But there are some who may not be so thrilled – astronomers. The presence of tens of thousands of metal objects zipping around through space at super-high speeds doesn’t make for the best astronomy pictures. Not too long after SpaceX launched their first batch of satellites in the Falcon 9 rocket, astronomers in different observatories all over the world received a shock as they saw the Starlink satellites show up in their astronomical images. Some other people even reported seeing bright “trains” of Starlink satellites moving across the sky — no observatory needed.
The sightings caused no small stir and were especially worrying. At that time, only 60 Starlink satellites had been launched into orbit. Considering that Starlink plans to have over 40,000 orbiting satellites one day, this could escalate to a much bigger issue.
So, to preserve our night sky as we know it and to stop interfering with the work of astronomers, SpaceX has to find a way to make their satellites reflect as little light as possible, or more preferably, no light at all. That way, the satellites would be somewhat invisible. To achieve this, SpaceX teamed up with leading astronomers to find out how to reduce the brightness of their satellites.
As a result, SpaceX has decided to make some software changes to adjust the way the satellites fly. These changes make it so that the satellites reflect less light from the sun. With that done, the satellites can be completely invisible to the human eye. Also, SpaceX plans to add deployable visors to block sunlight from hitting and reflecting off the brightest parts of the satellite. This way, the crafts would be darkened, reducing their interference in observatory detectors.
Starlink also has measures in place to limit their contribution to the continually increasing volume of floating space debris. According to the company, the satellite is designed to burn up once it enters the Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its lifecycle.
Plans to Go Public
Upon the announcement of Starlink to the public, many asked questions about the company’s plans to go public. SpaceX, Starlink’s parent company, has since refused to IPO. According to the company, the short-term demands of shareholders aren’t in line with the company and its founder’s long-term ambitions. However, just last year, SpaceX COO Gwynne Shotwell indicated that even though SpaceX has no immediate plans of going public, Starlink is the business that the company would likely spin out and take public.
A few years after the launch of Starlink, CEO Elon Musk finally answered the question of Starlink’s possible IPO. On February 9th, 2021, Elon was addressed by a Twitter user who asked, “Will Starlink IPO soon? Would love to invest!”. To this, Elon replied with a tweet saying, “SpaceX needs to pass through a deep chasm of negative cash flow over the next year or so to make Starlink financially viable”. Then he added, “Every new satellite constellation in history has gone bankrupt. We hope to be the first one that does not”.
In February 2021, Starlink had over 100,000 active users and began taking pre-orders from the public. They have been able to provide proper internet connection to people who previously had to live with slow connections or no connection at all. They even helped emergency responders to rebuild a town in Washington State that had been destroyed by wildfire. So far, Starlink looks like it’s off to a good start. But we’ll have to wait and see where it goes.