Elon Musk has a huge interest in all things related to outer space. And that is why he decided to establish SpaceX. Among its many achievements is the ambitious plan of establishing a network of Starlink satellites that will form a cover around our planet. This spaceflight company is dedicated to providing low-cost internet to very remote locations, and this network of satellites will help them with that. The plan is to launch a megaconstellation- a network of 12,000 Starlink satellites. But the plan has its critics as well.
The Initial Plan
Way back in January of 2015, SpaceX had announced their Starlink plan. Back then the project hadn’t been named yet when company CEO Elon Musk had announced that they had filed documents with international regulators to get approval. The first phase was to situate 4000 Starlink satellites in the lower orbit of the planet. The plan was revealed in Seattle and this is what Musk had to say, “We’re really talking about something which is, in the long term, like rebuilding the internet in space.”
But Musk had bigger goals. He wanted to take up a part of the $1 trillion international market for internet connectivity, in order to move a step closer to his dream of colonizing Mars. So Musk and SpaceX wanted to increase the number of satellites. They got permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to place 12,000 Starlink satellites for now, with another target of 30,000 satellites in the near future.
How do those numbers compare to current satellites in our orbit? the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs states that in our whole history, 9000 satellites have been launched yet. And only around 2000 of artificial satellites are currently orbiting Earth.
After the announcement in 2015, SpaceX launched the first 2 test crafts in 2018, and named them TinTinA and TinTinB. It was a successful test mission. After studying the initial data, SpaceX asked the regulators to allow their fleet to operate from even lower altitudes than initially proposed. Impressed by their project, FCC approved.
On 23rd May 2019, the first 60 Starlink satellites were launched with the SpaceX rocket Falcon 9. The satellites reached and settled at an altitude of 340 miles. This low altitude meant in the future when they stop working, they won’t float away as space junk. They will be easily pulled in by earth’s gravity and atmospheric drag, and SpaceX will probably repurpose them!
How do the Starlink Satellites Work?
Sky & Telescope magazine had published that each Starlink satellite is about 500 lbs. and is the size of a table roughly.
Most internet connections are received via electric cables that are physically laid underground to reach remote locations. But with satellite internet, information can be directly beamed via space vacuum. Business Insider reported that when traveling via vacuum, the speed is 47% faster than the most advanced optic fiber cables currently on earth.
The satellites we currently have in space for the internet use huge spacecraft, and they orbit at around 22,000 miles above particular spots on the Earth. But with that distance comes significant delays in receiving and sending data. With the Starlink satellites being placed far closer, and them creating their own network, the SpaceX satellites will be able to transfer huge portions of information to any point on Earth with superspeed. This includes locations over and under the oceans and all other remote places where physical cables cannot reach.
Musk had explained that with 400 satellites, the internet coverage will be “minor”, and with 800 satellites, it will be “moderate”.
After a few days of the first launch, skygazers spotted a string of pearl-like lights in the early hours of the morning. It was the light reflecting from the Starlink satellites. There are guides online to find out the exact locations of these satellites. Observers described it as a train of lights as the satellites whizzed above. Everyone, including SpaceX, agreed that the satellites were brighter than they had anticipated.
And this is where the panic started. While the connectivity might be a boon, a whole network of satellites is bound to be a huge obstruction for observing the rest of the universe from the planet. Critics were vocal about the number of satellites and it seems they were not too wrong.
Researchers shared photos where the satellites left their trail marks while the researchers were trying to gather their data.
Lowell Observatory, Arizona shared their concern as did people working on the Vera Rubin Telescope. Highly sensitive telescopes like these go after exquisite details. Vera Rubin (previously known as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) will come online in 2022. This sensitive telescope is built to study our universe in detail and the Starlink satellites forming their network in the lower orbit will become an obstacle.
The International Astronomical Union released a statement in 2019 June where they mentioned how the satellite constellation can be a debilitating threat to significant current and future astronomical endeavors and infrastructures. They urged SpaceX and Elon Musk to cooperate with the community to analyze and reassess the impact their network might cause.
In September that same year, more objections followed. The European Space Agency (ESA) declared that it had to direct its Aeolus satellite to manage evasive maneuvers in order to avoid crashing into Starling 44, one of the initial 60 satellites that were launched.
Next, the US military told the company how the collision probability was as high as 1 in 1000, which is 10x higher than the threshold for ESA to conduct a collision avoiding maneuver. And this forced the company to take some decisive actions.
Future Plans with the Starlink satellites
In November 2019 the second set of satellites was launched and the third set in January 2020. But the company has promised to work with space organizations to mitigate the impact the megaconstellation might have on their work. The company plans on launching broadband internet service before 2020 comes to an end.
Featured Image: © Marco Langbroek via SatTrackBlog