hat if I told you that within a few years, you’ll have access to fast, high-speed internet wherever you are on this planet? Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? Ask that to Elon Musk, and he would’ve to disagree with you.
For Musk and his team at SpaceX have come up with a first-in-class concept of space-based Internet connectivity. What this means is that undercut land-based networks which don’t have access to proper web connectivity, can experience speed up to 10Gbps, thereby making Starlink (the name of the project) a massive internet service provider. Also, take into account that 50% of the world population still doesn’t have internet access. So it makes pretty much sense why SpaceX is investing so much on this technology.
Before we go any further, let’s just have a look at the history and conception of this idea.
The idea was first conceptualized in 2015 when Elon Musk approached the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) for testing a “global broadband” system, and in September of 2017 filed applications for a satellite based broadband network called Starlink, with the objective of eventually building a low-cost, satellite based broadband network capable of delivering internet access to the entire globe.
Now, what makes Starlink special as compared to conventional satellite internet? While satellite internet has been around for a while, it’s been bogged down by high dormancy (latencies up to 600 ms), unreliable connections, and spotty service areas. With Starlink, SpaceX aims to put a constellation of satellites in low-Earth orbit, thereby providing high speed (latencies of only 30-35 ms), and cable-like internet to every corner of the planet.
Standard telecommunications satellites mostly sit in a geostationary orbit thousands of miles above Earth's equator and follow the direction of Earth's rotation, so appearing to stay in one place to serve one region. Their distance from Earth means a lag of about a second or more.
With Starlink, the company is releasing about 12,000 satellites in low-Earth orbit, which are approximately 65 times closer to the Earth’s surface than a geo-stationary satellite. This ensures two things: first is the wide area network coverage that will ensure internet service to every nook and corner of the world, and second is the incredible speed of up to 10 Gbps, which is actually faster than fibre-optic internet.
Starlink satellites will use Hall-effect thrusters with krypton gas as the reaction mass for orbit raising and attitude control. Krypton Hall thrusters tend to exhibit significantly higher erosion of the flow channel compared to a similar electric propulsion system operated with xenon, but at a lower propellant cost.
GLOBAL AND SOCIAL IMPACT
Starlink will create an intricate network system of space-based connectivity. This provides it a global monitoring system where every smart device is connected to Starlink’s satellites. The question that naturally follows here is: What if this technology falls into the wrong hands?
We are no strangers to our privacy desecration via violation of cyber policies (courtesy Facebook). If we take a parallel example in this case, then the whole world security becomes exposed to cyber-crimes. What this implies is that in the unexpected event of someone hacking into Starlink’s satellites and gaining access to every device linked to it, he/she can cause global chaos and catastrophe.
Another aspect of Starlink’s global impact is the cause of worry to astronomers who believe the huge number of satellites (12,000) might hamper with stargazing.
As more and more satellites start to crowd the sky, our view of space may start to only reach as far as those vessels orbiting the planet. Alex Parker, a planetary astronomer and the director of the Project for Exploration Science Pathfinder Research for Enhancing Solar System Observations (ESPRESSO), has raised concerns about the brightness of the Starlink satellites in particular. “I know people are excited about those images of the train of SpaceX Starlink satellites, but it gives me pause,” he wrote on Twitter. “They’re bright, and there are going to be a lot of them. If SpaceX launches all 12,000, they will outnumber stars visible to the naked eye.”
In conclusion, Starlink is a massively ambitious project, with about $10 billion at stake (the projected cost for the whole venture), but it won’t be the only one. Facebook is coming up with “Athena”, which is on the same lines, and before we know it, Google, Samsung will all follow suit. The question that pops up then is: Do we really need this much effort to bring the world closer?
And my answer is no. We are already at a point in time, where the world is closer than ever before. And yet somehow we feel distant. Technology does connect people, but in doing so, it inadvertently pushes them further apart. And until we realize it, no space-based internet service provider will do it for us.