For those space geeks, you must have seen or heard a series of satellites floating like bright spots in the night sky.
They are part of Elon Musk’s space adventure, SpaceX’s Starlink mission. Another innovative solution by Musk – this time to solve the world’s internet problems.
Starlink’s mission is designed to send a huge satellite constellation into space to provide high-speed, low-cost internet at a global scale, especially to connect the most remote corners of the Earth where the internet is limited, unreliable, expensive or unavailable.
While existing ISPs are improving, they are still struggling to reach rural areas. However, Starlink … will cover all parts of the world.
– Gwyne Shotwell, President and CEO of SpaceX.
This all sounds great! But how will Starlink actually do this? Here’s everything we know about Starlink’s internet mission so far.
On May 24, 2019, SpaceX launched its first batch of satellites into low space orbit on a Falcon 9 rocket. It marks the start of Starlink’s ambitious project.
This launch is just the first of many. At the time of writing, SpaceX has completed seven missions, launching 60 satellites each, bringing the total number of Starlink satellites used in outer space to 420 (as of April 22, 2020). SpaceX plans to launch 12,000-14,000 satellites over the next decade.
If the scheme is successful, it could provide the world with internet 40 times faster than we get now.
This brings us to the question of how to get the internet now? And what will Starlink’s mission contribute to the distribution of the Internet as we know it
How do we receive the internet today?
The everyday internet we get today runs over fiber optic cables.
Fiber optic internet connections get their name from the glass cables used in the process. Fiber optic cables are thin strands of hair-like glass fibers that use light to transmit the internet. Light beams are transmitted from one point to another by cables containing these glass fibers.
Fiber internet connections are arranged to work through a 3 tier system.
Tier 1 is the company that directly owns and operates the network. There are the likes of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon.
Tier 2 is the provider that pays Tier 1 to own the network. Companies like Comcast fall into this category.
Tier 3 is 100% middlemen who do not own any network but act as a buffer between the end user and the network owner. Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile and others belong to this layer.
Although this is the most common way to get an internet connection, there are two problems with this arrangement:
- Building an internet service over fiber requires a lot of infrastructure investment — digging trenches, installing fiber or cables, dealing with property rights, and so on. This makes remote internet access a daunting task.
- Another problem is the speed of light. Light travels 47% slower in glass than in a vacuum. This adds a few microseconds of delay per kilometer as it travels through the glass medium.
There may be delays in the transmission of information per kilometer. In a vacuum, light travels about 96 million meters per second faster than in glass. Because of this delay it is significantly higher in the glass.
What’s New: How will the internet in space be different?
Starlink satellites will beam internet signals directly from space to a pizza box the size of a ground terminal. This means that Starlink will need less infrastructure to get internet signals from space. At the same time, it can provide high-speed, low-latency internet connection.
SpaceX’s high-speed internet will be worth millions to many businesses, including financial markets, where delays at millennial level can cost a fortune. Similarly, for common applications like video calls and voice calls, etc.
So while SpaceX will meet the unmet need for broadband capacity in remote areas, it will be a premium network provider for industries that need faster and better internet service.
While this has solved many problems, you must be wondering why SpaceX is sending so many satellites for this. Let’s explore.
Why does the Starlink project need so many satellites?
Communication over satellite networks is not a new idea. However, most existing satellites operate in geostationary orbits above the Earth’s surface, ie. at an altitude of about 36,000 km.
In contrast, Starlink will place its satellites in much lower orbits, about 340 kilometers, 550 kilometers and 1,200 kilometers above the Earth’s surface.
Due to the high location of geostationary satellites, even though they can cover the entire Earth’s surface, there is a noticeable delay in the transmission of information. By positioning satellites in lower orbits, Starlink will reduce latency – because satellites will be closer to Earth (also due to the use of space as a medium).
Starlink’s Internet transmission latency will be as low as 15 milliseconds, barely noticeable to consumers.
However, getting the satellites closer does complicate things a bit for Starlink. Due to the low altitude, satellites can only cover certain parts of the Earth. That’s why Starlink will use 14,000 satellites to cover all parts of the planet in space internet.
How soon will we get SpaceX internet?
Let’s start with a simple answer given by Musk:
Starlink could start providing a modest internet service with about 800 satellites in orbit.
Assuming SpaceX remains at its current pace and is on schedule (uninterrupted by the pandemic crisis overflowing the market), it should reach its goal of providing relatively modest internet coverage by June 2020. It aims start space internet services with North America.
In terms of cost, even though SpaceX hasn’t released details yet, there is speculation that end-space SpaceX internet may cost end users around $ 70 to $ 80 a month.
What does SpaceX want to achieve with Starlink?
As well as being a major internet provider, SpaceX hopes to make as much as $ 22 billion in annual operating profit from its satellite internet service alone by 2025.
The idea is that SpaceX will use the revenue generated to fund Musk’s lifelong dream of building cities on Mars.