SpaceX is building Starlink Satellite network to meet the global demand for low-cost, high speed internet.
Latest updates: 1/20/21 – SpaceX launched their 17th Starlink mission from the Cape Canaveral base in Florida, sending 60 more satellites into outer space.
Starlink Key Takeaways:
- 41.3% of the world doesn’t have access to the internet. Starlink is solving this problem.
- Fast satellite internet will create opportunities for people when they join the internet for the first time.
- Starlink adds about 60 satellites to the network per launch. They will soon use Starship to increase this number.
- Speed: 50 – 150Mbps, latency of 20-40 ms
- Cost: $99 / month + one-time fee of $499.
If you live in a remote or rural area, there’s a good chance you might have a difficult time connecting to the internet. This is because service providers have not installed as much infrastructure. With fewer cell towers and ground lines in less populated areas, internet connectivity may be limited.
One way around this is to get satellite internet, which allows data transfer between a ground receiver and a network of satellites in orbit around planet Earth.
The only problem is, it’s not that good. According to a comment on TikTok, current satellite internet could be better.
Because of this, there is market demand for better access to satellite connectivity. A number of companies have recognized this and are working on developing more reliable global broadband.
In a rush to capitalize on the opportunity, SpaceX Starlink has been quite active in deploying satellites to meet this need.
What is Starlink?
SpaceX is sending satellites into orbit (called Starlink), which will bring internet access to remote areas of the globe where there’s no connectivity. Its important to note that the service will work best in areas where population density is low, where smaller clusters of people are attempting to access data at any given time.
SpaceX currently has plans to launch thousands of satellites (at least 12,000) into orbit to meet economic demand for low cost global broadband. By providing global broadband service to clients via satellite, SpaceX plans to use the revenue generated to fund R&D, space missions, sending humans to Mars, and completing Starship development for high-speed Earth to Earth commercial air travel.
Starlink will reportedly build gigabit speed satellite internet for the US and Canada.
The company has anticipated near global coverage for the populated world by 2021. However, the completion of Starlink is estimated to take 10 years and cost $2B.
During launch, the satellites are efficiently packed into the Falcon 9 spaceship. They are designed to be small and fit together seamlessly like folding chairs for easy storage. Each weighs about 260kg. A typical shipment of 60 satellites means a payload of at least 34,392 lbs – over 17 tons.
The company publishes videos of these satellite launches on YouTube, which happen every few weeks. They typically deploy 40-60 satellites per launch.
Initial Beta Release
Starlink initial beta release happened on October 27, 2020. The day before that, on October 26, 2020, the Starlink app was published to the Apple App Store as well as Android, which allows users to setup and monitor their satellite internet.
After opening the app, it prompts you to go outside and point your phone up at the sky, in an area without any trees or powerlines obstructing the view. Apparently after doing this, you can begin the process of setup.
Although anyone can download the app, unfortunately, only a select few customers have been invited to serve as Beta testers.
Reddit user FourthEchelon19 was one of those select people, who get to try it out first. They discussed this on the subreddit r/Starlink. They were also was kind enough to include a screenshot of the invitation email from Starlink, which is below.
The company will be sending these few initial users a kit that includes a satellite receiver, router, etc., which will be required in order to access the internet through Starlink.
Starlink Speed and Cost
There will be an expected latency between 20 – 40 ms, there has been nothing reported about data caps.
The capacity for data transfer is not yet at gigabit levels, the initial version will be have estimated speeds of 50 – 150Mbps, which is significantly slower than your typical at-home wifi service from a company like Xfinity or AT&T.
The internet service plan is subscription based, costing $99 / month, with a one-time fee of $499 for a phased array antenna (satellite receiver) and router.
Users will have to purchase and setup the hardware themselves, which is included in the $499 initial fee.
How does Starlink work?
Each satellite is orbiting Earth, which means it is in a perpetual freefall at over 7.8 km/s (17,000 mph), with the force of gravity causing centripetal acceleration. Most of the satellites are located in low earth orbit (LEO) at an altitude of roughly 1100 km. LEO is the ideal distance because this allows for a stronger signal on the ground.
Located 1100 km above sea level this is much lower than the old model where a small number (3) of expensive, high orbiting, geostationary satellites were located 35786 km above Earth, each providing coverage to roughly a third of the globe. Geostationary orbit means rotating at the same speed as Earth, moving at a speed of 3 km/s.
The new satellite model: Starlink will use a tight network of over 4000 satellites.
Being closer to the ground in LEO is advantageous because of the shorter distance the signal has to travel, thus lower latency.
Starlink is closer to the Earth and therefore has to travel faster to maintain obit. (7.8 km/s in LEO, orbits Earth once every 90 minutes. This is similar to the International Space Station.
One of the technical challenges with the satellites moving so quickly that that they are difficult to track via ground stations. There has to be some way for the ground station to rapidly switch communication between different satellites in the network as they move.
Satellites will be able to optical communication (via light) between each other within line-of site – as long as they aren’t over the horizon.
Speed of light is faster in the vacuum of space, which means inter-satellite data transfer speeds will be extremely fast.
They are using a hall-effect thruster, which, according to Elon Musk, is not that hard to build
Each Starlink satellite has its own solar panel for energy and communicates with ground stations.
To avoid collisions with debris and other objects in space, the satellites use data from the US Department of Defense debris tracking system, to autonomously move around and orient themselves via hall-effect ion thrusters.
Fortunately, there are not a lot of other satellites or debris in low Earth orbit. Starlink’s main objective in this regard is to avoid contributing to the space debris. Once a satellite reaches the end of its usable life, it will de-orbit, burning up on re-entry. It will disintegrate quickly once it is in the presence of air friction in the atmosphere.
So far, the FCC has approved the deployment of 7518 broadband satellites. Satellites are most visible during the first few days of orbit.
Light Pollution concerns: Given human concerns with the ability to view the starry sky night without obstruction, SpaceX has taken measures to make the satellites invisible. They have added shields to darken them. Additionally, the satellites are usually organized to orbit above regions of earth during the daytime.
SpaceX has partnered with Microsoft on the Starlink initiative – the broadband internet service is hosted on Azure.
Future of Starlink
Humans have been sending satellites to outer space since the late 1950s. Since that time, satellite networks have allowed for varying degrees of data transfer on Earth.
With Starlink, this might get better. The company plans to build the largest satellite network ever. Having a larger group of satellites means that they are better able to cope with external factors like weather and other connection impacts.
Since over 40% of people on Earth don’t have access to the internet, Starlink is solving a major problem. Some of these areas do not have electricity, either – so solar panels could be deployed as well.
Starlink system will also be used on MARS – there is no infrastructure or fiber optic networks there, but with satellites, mars will have the global communication system. We will need high bandwidth communications between Earth and Mars.
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