In early 2015 Elon Musk gave a speech to the crowd who had gathered to mark the opening of SpaceX’s new campus in Seattle. I’m not sure whether they were aware they would also bear witness to another big announcement. In a rather innocuous and off handed fashion, (see for yourself here) Elon announced that SpaceX would be partaking in a momentous project to reshape and rebuild the internet. In space. The Starlink project would be Elon’s answer to not only the problems of internet connectivity in dense, urban environments, but enable reliable and affordable connectivity to be brought to all remote, poor or disadvantaged parts of the World.
Starlink expects that it’s network will eventually handle over half of global long distance internet traffic and about 10% of local consumer and business internet services. Starlink is not really looking to replace fibre or cellular data infrastructures. It is pitched at solving a particular problem that exists all over the world today – the digital divide. More on that later.
These days it’s easy to become blah-zay about technological developments. We have become accustomed to having a car turn up to take us wherever we want to go at the touch of the screen of the supercomputer we carry around in our pocket. I’ve been a keen follower and adopter of technology for decades and I have to admit, it’s really hard to get impressed by many of the so-called “innovations” of the last five years or so. That’s why I find it odd that something like Starlink has not garnered more attention. Maybe we and the media are a bit Elon-weary? Electric cars this, hyperloop tunnels that, colonising Mars. Sure. Whatever.
But when I discovered Starlink late last year and started to read more about it AND learned that he’s actually doing it. In fact, a good way down the track, it was a bit of a 🤯 moment for me. I mean, this thing is huge! And revolutionary. Admittedly some of the tech is not exactly new or super innovative – but the audacity, the scope, the sheer scale of it – is (for me at least) breathtaking.
If you’re not sure or remain unconvinced that putting thousands of fridge-sized satellites each traveling at thousands of kilometres an hour in an intricate lattice-like orbit capable of inter-communication (coming soon!) and relay of super-low latency, high-speed broadband internet to pizza-sized discs on the Earth’s surface isn’t impressive, then there may not be much I can do for you. But let’s have a go anyway!
The original plan mooted by SpaceX in 2015 was for a communications network of about 4,000 satellites in very low orbit to be launched over a 5 year time frame. The project’s initial budget was a lazy US$10billion – US$15billion. Now, even if you are still eye rolling as to the scale of this undertaking, I want you to keep in mind that 4,000 satellites represented more than double the entire population of satellites orbiting the Earth in 2015.
Evidently, even something of this massive scale turned out to not be quite big enough to get the job done. After a year or two of research, development and engineering, SpaceX told the US Federal Communications Commission in early 2017 that in addition to the original plan for 4,000 satellites, it now intended to launch a second, lower orbiting shell of some 7,518 satellites. Instead of taking around 5 years to complete, the time horizon blew out to about 15 years.
SpaceX remained in R&D mode for the remainder of 2017 and 2018. Trying to meet the design challenge the bean counters had thrown up by insisting that the ground receivers meet a US$200 retail price point proved to be a major stumbling block. The FCC threw up some regulatory hurdles too and did not give final approval for deployment until Nov 2018.
Anyway, by early 2019 Spacex, which by that time had trademarked the name “Starlink” for the network, was ready to shift from R&D to manufacturing and more excitingly, lighting some candles! The first launch of the Starlink project – a SpaceX Falcon 9 carrying a payload of 60 satellites took place on 23 May 2019:
Actually, strictly speaking, a prototype Starlink satellite called Tintin v.01 was put into orbit as co-payload aboard a regular Falcon 9 mission on 24 February 2018. The launch on 23 May 2019 marked the initial launch of dedicated Starlink deployments aboard SpaceX Falcon 9 vehicles scheduled to continue for the next 10 years or so at least. Each mission carries about 60 satellites close to their designated orbits. Once there, the fairing of the Falcon 9 is released, and the satellites kind of roll out into space. From there, each satellite’s guidance system and small booster propels it to its final orbit altitude. And there it stays spinning around the Earth as part of a lattice made up of 4,000 or so of its closest mates.
By all accounts (see here) the first launch was a smashing success. All but 3 were able to communicate with each other and with Starlink’s ground station. For 2 unlucky units, the mission would be one and done. Those brave bits of tin were pointed back towards the atmosphere to burn up as part of a test of Starlink’s de-orbiting procedures.
So with birds in the air, Starlink moved to commence testing ground terminals at different locations in North America. In October 2019 Elon proved publicly that the damn thing worked by using the network to post a tweet.
By November 2020 Starlink had conducted its one millionth test and beta testers who had taken the plunge and purchased a prototype ground unit were reporting data throughput speeds of up to 150Mbps. As things sit right now, Starlink has launched 1,265 satellites over 21 SpaceX missions. Launches are planned to continue at roughly fortnightly intervals until all 12,000 are deployed. That number could, according to recent announcements by Starlink, rise to as many as 42,000 satellites…
So what is it exactly they are sticking up there? Well, I’m glad you asked. What you’ve got is essentially a refrigerator-sized box that weighs about 200kg with a big solar panel attached to it. The satellites have small electric boosters fueled by Krypton (watch out Superman!). They need the boosters as the SpaceX vehicle that transports them out of the Earth’s atmosphere drops them off about 100km or so short of their eventual orbit.
The SpaceX Falcon 9 is not fitted with any kind of deployment mechanism. The satellites are loaded on a big rack and held in place with retaining clips. Once ready to exit, the clips are released and the satellites just drift off into space using their own inertia. From there each satellite’s booster propels it to its final orbit position. Speaking of loaded, you’ll see from the image below that the Falcon 9’s payload space is filled to the gills.
And if you thought that doesn’t seem all that big to me! Here’s a pic of the same payload area when the rocket was famously used to put a Tesla Roadster into space. Should give you some perspective…
Once in their final orbit of anywhere between 550 and 1150km in altitude they will be traveling at about 8 kilometres PER SECOND😲. That translates into roughly 28,000km/h and each satellite takes about 90 – 100 minutes to complete one loop around the Earth. Even traveling at these monumental speeds, the satellites are kitted out with tech that will enable them to automatically manoeuvre around space debris.
The satellites will remain in their low Earth orbit transmitting zeros and ones at a rate of up to 3 terabits of data per second for about 5 years. At which point it is expected that advances in satellite technology will have rendered them obsolete. After the satellite is “de-orbited”(meaning that it is pointed into the Earth’s atmosphere causing the satellite to be vaporised out of existence) it will be replaced with a newer, shinier model.
As the satellites are launched they are positioned into orbital planes to perform their task of spinning around the earth delivering broadband data service. Each SpaceX Falcon 9 is capable of deploying satellites to three different orbital planes. This constellation is currently organised into 72 orbital planes that make up a kind of latticework arrangement from pole to pole. It looks something like this:
I know you’re probably thinking “If only there was a way I could find out where any individual Starlink satellite is right now or even all of them?” And it’s a great question. Until I found Heavens Above I would’ve told you that you’re probably outta luck. Heavens Above is a website that apart from providing very cool and useful interactive sky charts, provides a dynamic 3D orbit display of every Starlink satellite (you can find it by clicking this link: Starlink Dynamic 3D Orbit Display
I won’t pretend to claim I understand how, say, an email sent from my iPad via Starlink will end up at its intended destination. And I certainly lay no claim to the expertise necessary to judge whether the technology will actually operate as intended. I do know that Starlink intends to rely on relatively untested laser (cue Dr Evil impersonation) based tech for satellite interconnectivity. I found this article breaks it all down nicely and provide links to some great source info.
All of this is amazing, but might leave you wondering “Why?” Don’t we already have internet that comes out of that little socket in the wall or through those cell towers littered throughout the urbanscape? Do we really need internet from space?
Well, chances are you are one of the fortunate few who can afford reliable high-speed data service and/or live in an area where such a service is ubiquitous, easily accessed, affordable and reliable. A large (probably larger than you think) proportion of the world’s population live in remote areas or areas which are poorly served by infrastructures like electricity, phone and data. A service like Starlink bridges the digital divide and enables access to something we in the first world all take for granted now – reliable high-speed internet access. Starlink effectively democratises the internet for millions, potentially billions, of people and should serve as a vital digital enabler for those in lower socio-economic brackets around the world.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Elon without Mars having something to do with it. He has been pretty candid from the get-go that the Starlink project will serve as the prototype for an eventual satellite communication network serving communities on Mars. It is also hoped that the profits from Starlink will help fund Musk’s Mars colonisation ambitions.
Then there is, umm, SCIENCE. The boffins at Starlink are exploiting the physical advantages the vacuum of space offers over current optical fibre technology. Very conveniently for them, light just happens to travel 40-50% faster in a vacuum than it does across fibre optic cables. Not only that but in terms of a vital factor affecting network speeds, known as “hops”, Starlink’s satellite constellation offers a significant advantage over existing technology. Data traveling across the satellite network will see a dramatic reduction (think: several orders of magnitude) in the hops a bit of data needs to take from start to finish compared to the hops it would take across a traditional optical fibre-based network.
And in typical Elon fashion, he reduced the whole grand undertaking to be worthwhile because “…it seems like a pretty good idea…”
Lest you think Elon is taking the universe for himself, it may be comforting to know that he does face some (but not much) competition in the race to establish a satellite communication network with global reach. Of course, there a couple of existing players like Iridium and Globalstar that provide satellite telephone and communication services. But let’s face it, they have not been runaway commercial success; nor have they ever successfully provided consumer-focused solutions. Then there was the ill-fated Teledesic effort from about 20 years ago that attracted some funding from Bill Gates. But the less said about that, the better.
No, the only real player nipping at Elon’s heels is a joint venture originally established in 2015 by none other than Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Qualcomm, called OneWeb. OneWeb has had something of a chequered history. It launched around the same time as Starlink (indeed it was announced a few days prior to Elon’s launch of Starlink). Although it proceeded nicely for a time (the project even secured a further US$1 billion from Softbank), things started to go sideways for OneWeb in early 2020 and it slid into bankruptcy in March 2020. A consortium led by the UK government and the Indian mega-conglomerate, Bharti Global, rescued OneWeb mid-year and by January of this year, it was back in the money with a reported US$1.4 billion in further funding from Softbank and Hughes Network Systems. It remains to be seen whether OneWeb can strap up its operations and prove a viable operator. As much as I like and admire Elon, I don’t think a space monopoly is going to be good for anyone. So I, for one, hope OneWeb is able to come good.
Well, there you have it. It’s doubtless a most impressive, almost awe-inspiring, undertaking. Like any grand plan, it has its critics, with most complaining that Starlink will never be capable of addressing the ongoing and ever-increasing demand for broadband. As Elon points out in response to that criticism quoted in this helpful blog post, that is not something Starlink was designed to accomplish. It should not be seen as a direct competitor to existing cellular and fiber-based broadband services. Focusing on what it was designed for (no, not the Mars thing…), it is nothing short of an engineering and technical marvel capable of solving the problem of the digital divide for millions of people.
If you’re keen to delve a bit deeper into any of the aspects touched on in this post here are some excellent resources:
First off is a great and very helpful video from Real Engineering’s YouTube channel:
This entire post would not have been possible without the very comprehensive Starlink Wikipedia page. It contains tons of details and links to source materials you can totally geek out on: Starlink Wikipedia page
If you’re even a little bit into space, rockets, and spacecraft and you’re not subscribed to the Everyday Astronaut’s YouTube channel, then shame on you 🙂. His unbridled enthusiasm for the subject matter alone is worth a look. But his deep technical understanding and mastery of it is super duper helpful and entertaining. You can find his YT channel here.
Here is a link to Spacenews.com’s archive of posts related to Starlink. It is a very good chronicle, past, present and future, of the project: Spacenews.com
Then there is the horse’s mouth – Starlink’s own website: Starlink Website
If you think Starlink is cool, then check out Elon’s main game, SpaceX. The work they are doing now flight testing their latest vehicle, called Starship, is beyond mind blowing: SpaceX website