Starlink Mission: Story of Space Internet

For those of you space geeks out there, you must have seen or heard about the string of satellites floating like bright dots in the night sky.

They are a part of Elon Musk’s space venture, SpaceX’s Starlink mission. Yet another innovative solution by Musk – this time for fixing the world’s internet woes.

Starlink mission aims to send a mega constellation of satellites to the space to provide high-speed and low-cost internet across the globe, especially connecting the remotest corners of the earth where the internet is limited, unreliable, expensive or completely unavailable.

While existing ISPs are improving, it’s still hard for them to reach rural areas. But, Starlink…will cover all parts of the globe.

– Gwyne Shotwell, SpaceX President, and COO.

All that sounds great! But, how will Starlink actually make it possible? Here’s all that we know about Starlink’s internet mission so far.

Quick Recap

On May 24, 2019, SpaceX launched its first tranche of satellites into the lower orbit of space with a Falcon 9 rocket. It marked the beginning of the ambitious Starlink project.

This launch was just the first of many. At the time of writing this, SpaceX has completed seven visits, launching 60 satellites in each, taking the total number of Starlink satellites deployed in the outer space to 420 (as on April 22, 2020). SpaceX plans to launch 12,000-14,000 satellites over the next decade.

If the initiative proves to be a success, it can give 40 times faster internet to the world than what we get right now.

This brings us to the question of how do we get the internet right now? And, what will the Starlink mission bring to revolutionize internet distribution as we know it.

How do we receive INTERNET Today?

The everyday internet we receive today runs through fiber optic cables.

Fiber optic internet connection gets its name from the glass cables that are used in the process. Fiber optic cables are bundles of thin hair-like glass fibers that use light to transmit the internet. The beams of light are carried from one point to another through the cables composed of these glass fibers.

The fiber optic internet connection arrangement works through the 3-tier system.

Tier 1, are companies that directly own and operate the network. There are a handful of them, such as AT&T, Sprint, Verizon.

Tier 2, are providers who pay to Tier 1 to own a network. Companies like Comcast come under this category.

Tier 3, are 100% middleman, who doesn’t own any network but acts as the buffer between the end consumer and network owners. Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, and others fall under this tier.

While it is the most prevalent way of getting an internet connection, there are two troubles in this arrangement:

  • Setting up internet service through fiber-optic requires a heavy investment in infrastructure – digging trenches, laying fiber-optic or cables, dealing with property rights issues, and more. This makes getting internet access at remote locations a herculean task.
  • Another problem is the speed of light. Light travels about 47% slower in glass than it does in a vacuum. This adds a few microseconds of latency every kilometer when it travels in glass medium.

Latency is the delay per kilometer in transferring information. In a vacuum, light travels about 96 million meters per second faster than in glass. Due to this latency is significantly higher in the glass.

What’s new: How will the space internet be different?

Starlink’s satellites will beam internet signals directly from space to a ground terminal about the size of a pizza box. This means that Starlink will require less infrastructure to get the internet signal from space. And, at the same time, it can provide high-speed, low-latency internet connection.

The high-speed internet of SpaceX will be worth millions for many businesses such as financial markets where milliseconds of delay can cost a fortune. Similarly, for common applications such as video calls, and voice calls, among others.

So, while SpaceX will meet the unmet demand for broadband capabilities in remote areas, it will become a quality network provider for industries that require faster and better internet services.

While that settles a lot, you must wonder why SpaceX is sending so many satellites for the purpose. Let’s explore.

satellite image

Why the Starlink project needs so many satellites?

Communicating through satellite networks is not a novel idea. However, most existing satellites orbit far above the Earth’s surface, in the geostationary orbits, i.e. at the height of ~36,000 kilometers.

Starlink, in contrast, will set-up its satellites in much lower orbits, roughly about 340 kilometers, 550 kilometers, and 1,200 kilometers above the earth’s surface.

Due to the higher placement of geostationary satellites, while they are able to cover the entire surface of the earth, there arises a significant delay in transmitting the information. By positioning satellites in the lower orbit, Starlink will bring the latency way down – as the satellites would be closer to earth (also by the virtue of using space as a medium).

The latency in internet transmission of Starlink will be as low as 15 milliseconds, which will be virtually unnoticeable to the users.

However, bringing satellites closer makes things a bit complicated for Starlink. Due to the lower altitude, a satellite will only be able to cover a certain portion of the earth. This is why 14,000 satellites will be used by Starlink to blanket each part of the earth in space internet.

starlink-satellites-covering-the-earth

How long before we can receive SpaceX internet?

Let’s just begin with a simple answer given by Musk to this:

Elon-musks-tweet-on-startlink

Starlink can begin delivering a moderate level of internet coverage with about 800 satellites into the orbit.

Assuming SpaceX continues at its current pace and remains on schedule (without getting disrupted due to pandemic crisis boggling the markets), it should reach its goal of providing a decently moderate internet coverage by the end of June 2020. It aims to begin space internet service with North America.

About costs, although the details haven’t been released by SpaceX, the speculations are that SpaceX’s space internet may initially cost around $70 to $80 per month for end users.

What SpaceX aims to achieve with Starlink?

mars-palnet

Other than becoming a major internet provider, by 2025, SpaceX hopes to earn as much as $22 billion in annual operating profits from its satellite internet service alone.

The idea is that SpaceX will use the revenues generated to fund Musk’s lifelong dream of building cities on the red planet, Mars.

Do you think the project will fly?

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