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Connecting the World Through the Stars—SpaceX’s Satellite Program, Starlink

For aeons, the night sky has been a steady light for sailors making their way across the globe. Nature’s own constellations helped conduct them along the high seas. Now instead of staring up at the sky, voyagers can look down at their mobiles as the human-made satellite constellation, Starlink will guide users with their very own network. 

An establishment that stands at the forefront of human innovation, SpaceX never fails to captivate the minds of today’s generation. Their projects range from tantalising space cars to the colonisation of other planets. One such intriguingly ambitious project that seeks to revamp the internet, and the world at large, is Starlink. Constructed in the form of a satellite constellation, Starlink sets its sights on providing satellite internet access. The project was first announced in 2015 with the main intention to create the world’s most advanced broadband internet access at reasonably affordable prices. The Federal Communications Commission granted their approval for the project in 2016, allowing SpaceX to break into this trillion-dollar market. As of 22nd April, Starlink has 420 satellites in orbit.

SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk, stated that the purpose behind Starlink was to meet the demands of low-cost global broadband communication. “We’re talking about something which is, in the long-term, like rebuilding the internet in space”, said Musk during the public unveiling of the project in Seattle. Additionally, Starlink serves as a base operation for funding SpaceX’s plans of an extra-terrestrial colonisation scheme in Mars, paving the way for a plausible spin-off in the upcoming years. 

Why is Starlink required? 

The innovation behind Starlink is highly relevant to the network problems faced by the population. As far as accessibility is concerned, this is of utmost importance as many families across the globe are unable to avail internet access due to being in remote locations that are in lesser proximity to relay towers. Creating a network above the stratosphere would ultimately eliminate the requirement of towers and would allow for the direct access of Wi-Fi. Currently, broadband services offer expensive packages at much slower download speeds. Broadband costs can range from $35 to $150 per month, whereas Starlink aims to provide a higher quality service at the projected rate of $80 monthly.

A trail of Starlink satellites as seen from Japan. [Image credits: CNET]

An In-Depth Look at the Concept

Keeping Starlink a cut above the rest is the internet that it delivers, which is without the limitations of laborious wiring and infrastructural blockades. The areas which previously found their domestic cable service unreliable or even unavailable at times would also benefit to Starlink’s broad coverage. Another salient feature is the speed at which the data travels through space, which is approximately 50% faster than it does through fibre optic cables, making it the fastest broadband service ever to grace the population. At present, fibre optic cables take the throne as the fastest data transmitting medium, but there still exist doubts regarding the cost and labour of laying down the wires. Along with this, the substantial lag in packet transfer hinders the speed of the service. The latter remains an issue for television companies that rely heavily on international live broadcasting from one end of the Earth to the other which Starlink dodges with its novel technology.

Starlink operates on a strict timeline to meet its goal, efficiently and within budget. A projected constellation of 12,000 satellites is expected to form the Starlink base by the year 2027, and these would be launched in batches over the months. To put this into perspective, the number of artificial satellites orbiting the Earth currently, excluding Starlink satellites, is merely around 2,000. Starlink aims to expand to near-global coverage of the world by 2021 rapidly. Each of these satellites can essentially be considered as a flying solar-powered wireless router. They are equipped with krypton gas thrusters based on the Hall effect that aid in station-keeping. A satellite apiece weighs about 260 kg and is roughly the size of a table, keeping it lightweight and compact.

A lesser-known ingenuity of the project is how it fulfils the necessity of keeping space clean. The satellite is integrated with a debris-tracking system that enables it to avoid any sort of collisions, thus making it more autonomous, reliable, and less prone to human error. Starlink meets the ecological industry standards while also performing a self-cleaning procedure on-orbit. At the expiry of a satellite’s lifespan, the onboard ion propulsion system is employed to deorbit the outpost over a small period. In the final model, every Starlink spacecraft will link to four others, and the resultant will beam data to the surface of the Earth at nearly the speed of light. 

Possibly the most interesting bit of technology onboard every satellite is a set of lasers to be used for the salient job of “backhaul” communications. This is the ability to link nearby satellites together optically to find a path between any two ground stations. Rather than sending internet signals through electric cables, which must be physically installed to scope out far-fetched places, satellite internet works by beaming information through the vacuum of space. User terminals smaller than a pizza box would then need to be installed at households or buildings to receive the relayed information. 

A typical Starlink satellite design. [Image Credits: Spacenews]

Challenges Faced Along the Way

While the services provided by Starlink may seem like a deus ex machina to the people, a few limitations obscure the future of the project. The most agitated entity is the astronomical society that considers the bright bodies of the satellites as a hindrance to their scientific observations. The autonomous movement of the satellites per their programming makes it an impossible challenge for the astronomers to predict their movement to change their scheduling. Space exploration, as a whole, is adversely hampered as a result. To combat this, a reflectance-reducing coating, DarkSat, is applied to the satellites which makes them nearly invisible to the human purview. Considering a source of transmission of high altitude such as Starlink, the weather also plays an essential role in determining the smooth connection between man and machine. Unfavourable weather conditions can, at times, disrupt the transmission and reduce the overall broadband quality. A significant factor that cannot be disregarded is that areas with high population are prone to overloading of bandwidth, which affects everyone sharing the bandwidth as they would witness a slower Wi-Fi.

On a global scale, the great power of hosting the fastest internet provider in the world does indeed come with great responsibility. Amazon, OneWeb, and Telesat are few companies that are also working on conceptualising their constellations while Google is looking to invest billions in the gamble. The London based firm OneWeb had planned a network of 648 satellites, having already launched 74 of them. Regrettably, the company filed for bankruptcy on 27th March due to a severe cash crunch, blaming the unceasing pandemic for their woes. At present, going head-to-head with Elon Musk is Jeff Bezos who plans to launch Amazon’s satellite constellation. Project Kuiper will entail a constellation of 3236 satellites, though none have been put into orbit yet. Along with these companies, Facebook, Boeing, and Telesat have also announced their intention of joining this new age space race. “This is probably one of the most challenging projects we have undertaken. It’ll cost the company about $10 billion or more to deploy this system”, said Gwynne Shotwell, the COO of SpaceX.

A regular Starlink satellite (left) compared to one coated with DarkSat reflectors (right). [Image Credits: SatTrackCam]

Hope for a Better Future

The satellite competition has never been more fierce with SpaceX at the helm of it all. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has not deterred SpaceX’s efforts to launch their constellation. The company has revealed plans to start private beta testing in three months and public beta testing in six.  Starlink is expected to be fully operational by the turn of the decade and may even cumulate up to 40,000 satellites in the event of a hit. Elon Musk remains relentless in his efforts to reach out to the public and is also working on ironing out the aesthetic appeal of the product. At the moment, there is only speculation as to the data cap, the cost of the package, and the effect of net neutrality on the provision. With a growing demand for localised, low-latency, and high-speed broadband at reasonable prices, Starlink may pave the way to a revolution in the technology industry. This accomplishment could kickstart the process of extra-terrestrial colonisation as always envisioned, and we may perhaps one day see ourselves asking for the Wi-Fi password on Mars.

Featured Image Credits: Ars Technica