Starlink: Elon Musk's $10 Billion Satellite Internet Project

Billionaire business magnate Elon Musk rejoicing at the Cape Canaveral launch pad (SpaceX)

Since the start of the pandemic, demand for high-speed internet has surged. The world has adopted a work from home culture. A fast, reliable internet connection is a basic need for doing this.

People in rural and remote areas are still devoid of good internet. Lack of optic fibre support and poor wireless connectivity of Wi-Fi towers being the main reason behind this. 5G rollout has already started in some parts of the world, yet many places are facing basic connectivity issues.

Elon Musk’s venture, Starlink is the current pioneer in satellite internet providers. They are using new internet service technology which will not use towers and optic fibres.


What is Starlink?

A Starlink satellite with extended solar panel (SpaceX)

Musk introduced Starlink, a division of SpaceX in 2015 as the Next-Gen space internet initiative.

Starlink is a constellation of satellites enveloping the earth, providing internet. The constellation comprises thousands of small satellites installed in low earth orbit (LEO). The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has granted permission to SpaceX for deploying 12,000 Starlink satellites.

To get a perspective, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs registers 11,458 objects that have been launched since the beginning. Out of which, over 4000 active satellites are orbiting our planet.

60 Starlink satellites stacked together before deployment (SpaceX)

SpaceX launched its first experimental satellites in February 2018. Tintin A & B, two demo crafts gathered data for operating a satellite constellation.

On May 23, 2019, the first 60 Starlink Block V0.9 satellites were deployed by SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. These satellites made it to an altitude of 550 kilometres (340 miles) in low earth orbit. As they run out of power, atmospheric drag will pull them down in few years. 95% of components will burn out as they fall down to the surface of the earth.


How Starlink satellites work

Constellation of Starlink satellites (MarkHandley)

Common satellites are launched in geosynchronous orbit, 35,786 kilometres (22,236 miles) altitude above Earth’s equator. They cover a large part of Earth as they are so far away from earth. But this results in higher latency.

To get low latency, Starlink satellites are set in 9 separate low earth orbits covering smaller regions relatively. This increases the need for deploying so many satellites. Starlink satellites are 60 times closer to earth than traditional satellites.

Area covered by a Starlink satellite (Mark Handley)

Starlink satellites beam information through space. Data transfer in vacuum happens at a much faster rate than in fibre optic cables. Light travels faster in a vacuum than fibre.

Each orbit contains many satellites, and the satellite on the north and south of each one of them overlap the territory covered by a single satellite. The satellites communicate with ground stations to provide the shortest path between the satellite and receiver on the land.

Musk informed at MWC Barcelona 2021 on June 29 that Starlink has recently passed the ‘strategically notable’ number of 69,420 active users.

Starting this August, the Starlink satellites will have global connectivity except for the poles. The space giant is looking forward to providing internet to 500k users within a year.

So far, over 1500 satellites have been launched which have combined solar power of 5MW. Right now, these satellites have a data output capacity of 30 TB/s. The spot size of Starlink satellites is very high. So the satellites are suitable for lower and medium density areas. They will serve only a few customers in the high-density area.


Using Starlink

Components included in Starlink starter kit (TheVerge)

The Starlink starter kit contains a small satellite terminal (dish) receiver, a mounting tripod, a Wi-Fi router, power adapter, and cables. The initial equipment fee for this kit is $499. Users additionally need a monthly subscription of $99 for using the service.

Starlink is running a beta program now where users can expect data speeds between 50Mb/s to 150Mb/s and latency from 20ms to 40ms. For some period, users can face no connectivity at all while beta is in the works. The beta program has no data caps for now meaning users can access unlimited data.

Installing this kit is quite easy. There is no need for a professional installer. “You can literally take it out of the box and within less than five minutes you have connectivity.” Musk said. “The instructions are just two. Point the terminal at the sky and plug it in. You can do it in either order, it doesn’t matter.” Musk told at the conference.

Starlink mobile app (SpaceX)

Terminal antenna needs to be pointed at clear sky. To determine that, Starlink mobile app can be used. Obstructions like trees, skyscrapers in the path of internet will hamper the speed of internet and disturb the connectivity.

Starlink is taking a loss because the kit costs a thousand USD. Still, many people around the globe cannot afford it. Musk said that they are working on improving the design of the terminal that will drop the price down to $250 in the future.


Messing with the stargazers

Starlink satellites streaking through the view of a telescope (NSF’s National Optical-Infrared Astronomy Research Laboratory / CTIO / AURA / DELVE)

Astronomers spotted bright streaks of light from the 60 satellites in the night sky. The satellites are so reflective and close to the earth, human eyes can spot them. This poses a problem to the stargazers. The satellites obstruct the view of telescopes adding to the work of astronomers. This is a major concern raised since the start of satellite internet tech.


In the video, you can see the Starlink satellites passing like a train, clearly visible at night. Starlink Satellites Tracker indicates when you can expect to see the ‘glimmering train’ over your location.

To mitigate this impact, SpaceX launched a prototype Starlink DarkSat earlier this year. It featured a black anti-reflective coating. This reduced the brightness of the satellite to half of a standard Starlink satellite. But this significant improvement did not please the astronomers as it is far from what they need.

A conceptual design render of VisorSat (SpaceX)

To resolve this issue, a darkened satellite VisorSat made a second attempt,. The spacecraft wields a black sunshade to reduce the light pinging of its surface. SpaceX launched its first such satellite in June 2020.


Jamming the sky

Handling 12000 satellites in the future at LEO is a tough task on hand. Starlink satellite has an automated collision avoidance system to prevent crashes.

Yet, in September 2019, the European Space Agency (ESA) reported that they were forced to shift a satellite from crashing into a Starlink constellation.

ESA’s Aeolus Earth observation satellite had to use its thrusters to move out of the potential collision course with the ‘Starlink 44’. The risk of collision between the two satellites was 1 in 1000. That is ten times higher than the threshold that requires a collision avoidance manoeuvre, stated Holger Krag, head of the Space Debris Office at ESA.

SpaceX found a problem with the Starlink paging system. The Starlink team had communicated with Aeolus’ handlers where both operators derived that chance of a collision was minimal. Later, the U.S. Air Force updated the probability to 1.69e-3. Because of a bug, SpaceX’s on-call paging system prevented the Starlink operator from noticing the follow-on correspondence on this threat.

Space Internet Race

Leading competitors to Starlink include Amazon’s Project Kuiper, OneWeb backed by the UK Govt. and Indian conglomerate Bharti Global, Canadian telco Telesat and the Chinese Hongyan project.

As the near-space gets crowded with these satellites, many potential issues will surface. The twinkling satellites will affect the study of the night sky.

 

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