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Elon Musk plans to revolutionize global internet service by launching 12,000 satellites into orbit and linking them with laser beams. It sounds a bit farfetched. It’s common to underestimate Musk because his projects sound like science fiction. That is until you remember that in 2003, few were confident about his ability to deliver a mass-market electric vehicle that outsold other luxury automotive companies. Yet, he did it in fifteen years.
In November 2018, the FCC approved the SpaceX request to launch satellites that will ultimately establish high-speed internet service across the globe with a mesh ring of low-Earth orbit satellites. The Internet service is called Starlink, and it could go live within a year.
An illustration of SpaceX's constellation of thousands of Starlink satellites to provide global, high-speed, low-latency internet. Mark Handley/University College London
SpaceX estimates the entire Starlink project will cost around $10 billion, which covers launch costs, as well as the design and setup of the necessary infrastructure to create its global broadband network. Although the plan is to launch as many as 12,000 satellites, estimates are that the system would be economically viable with as few as 1,000 spacecraft. Each satellite connects to four others using lasers, allowing data to travel over Earth’s surface at nearly the speed of light.
Even if fiber-optic cables were pervasive, light moves through them more slowly than it does in the vacuum of space, so the new service would be an improvement. The bulky and costly infrastructure limits existing internet transmissions. It’s simply too expensive, or unrealistic to connect every place on earth with fiber-optic cables that transmit data quickly. Starlink’s mesh ring of 12,000 low Earth orbit satellites will establish high-speed internet for the first time in remote locations. If the project goes as planned, Starlink satellites will deliver cheap, fast internet to rural areas, airplanes, ships, and even cars.
No other internet-providing satellites can transmit that much data that far at those speeds. Existing satellite internet service is reliable but slow. Current satellites orbit at 22,236 miles above Earth, causing transmissions to lag behind a half-second. It doesn’t sound like much time, but the time delay makes long-distance video conferencing disjointed and annoying.
Starlink's satellites will rotate with Earth, making data transmission from New York to London 15% faster than fiber-optic. Not only international teleconferencing would benefit - online gaming would be lag-free, too. The financial industry seeks gains from a marginally faster transmission time. Markets move billions of dollars, and any delay can lead to losses.
Musk plans to launch around 1,000 satellites over the next 12 months, followed by another 1,000 every year following. Roughly the size of an office desk, each satellite weighs about 500 pounds and is about the size of a tabletop. Sixty of them fit inside the nosecone of the Falcon 9 rocket intended to deliver them to space.
SpaceX plans to launch at least one Starlink mission a month over the next two years. Musk estimates that getting the service up and running would take about 400 satellites, with better coverage kicking in around 800 satellites. With the current launch schedule, customers could expect to get access within twelve months.
The complete plan calls for 4,425 Starlink satellites flying in low-Earth orbit 690-823 miles above Earth, and 7,518 satellites at an altitude of about 210 miles. The higher satellites will act as the foundation of the broadband service, while the lower will boost capacity and lower latency, particularly in heavily populated areas.
Each Starlink satellite should convey around one terabit per second of functional bandwidth. That’s enough bandwidth for 40,000 people to stream 4K video simultaneously. Receivers are projected to cost $200 and be about the size of a pizza.
Under the original agreement, the FCC gave SpaceX strict deadlines for launching its Starlink satellites. If SpaceX doesn't hit the deadlines, the FCC can pull the plug or freeze the maximum allowable satellites to whatever is in orbit. SpaceX has six years, or until 2024, to launch the first half of satellites planned and nine years to complete the project by the 2027 deadline. To meet the 2027 deadline, SpaceX will have to launch about 120 satellites a month, not counting any replacement efforts. The company expects the orbiting spacecraft to last about five years so those efforts will be ongoing. It seems reasonable that newer rocket technology, including the giant reusable Starship, might be roped into service launching satellites in the future to meet the aggressive deadlines.
SpaceX is not alone in pursuing global internet coverage with satellite launches. Even Amazon is joining the fray with a massive constellation plan to provide internet service from low Earth orbit. Companies like OneWeb, Telesat, and LeoSat are also throwing their hats into space. Facebook and Amazon are testing the waters for their own ventures.
After two years, SpaceX will have more satellites in orbit than everything currently in space. There are already thousands of inoperable satellites orbiting Earth. With all of the planned launches and the 2,000 operational satellites already in orbit, the potential for damaging debris is considerable. Space debris can damage spacecraft like a bullet shot from a gun. Even small pieces can blow apart an expensive satellite, creating more chaos.
SpaceX plans to de-orbit satellites at the end of their usefulness to limit the accumulation of space junk. The out of service satellites will use propulsion to move to a disposal orbit where they enter the Earth’s atmosphere to burn up.
The idea sounds like something you’d read in science fiction. Launch 12,000 satellites into low orbit around Earth, link them with laser beams and give customers access to the internet system via pizza-size antennas. Yet, when faced with the giant leaps and bounds the world has taken since the Internet became widespread, no project sounds too farfetched. The FCC approved the plan last year, and you may have the chance to try out the high-speed internet service yourself within a year.
Megan Southard is a writer, mom, technology enthusiast, and movie junkie. She dreads the day her kids have to explain gadgets to her and is old enough to say, "I was the remote for our TV growing up."
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