SpaceX is targeting 10:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, May 15, 2019 for the launch of 60 of its own Starlink satellites from Pad 40 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. If it’s successful, it will begin to offer global internet coverage from space. So what is Starlink?
What is Starlink?
Technically speaking, Starlink is an ambitious project to bridge the digital divide by putting a vast network of small satellites into low-Earth orbit (LEO) that can beam connectivity to any place on planet Earth. The eventual goal is to create a constellation of 12,000 satellites, about two-thirds orbiting 500km up and the rest about 1,200km up in low-Earth orbit (LEO). Communicating with each other via lasers, together they will deliver Ku/Ka-band broadband internet access 40 times faster than what satellite services currently offer. Amazon’s ‘Project Kuiper’ is a similar concept, with 3,236 satellites creating a global broadband internet service, though Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin doesn’t plan to have its orbit-class New Glenn rocket ready until at least 2021, that’s one for the future.
What’s launching tomorrow?
The first baby steps towards a massive Starlink constellation will go skywards on Wednesday, and you can watch the live webcast of the launch on the SpaceX website or on the SpaceX YouTube channel. The launch will consist of the first 60 Starlink satellites, which appear to be experimental. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that “much will likely go wrong on 1st mission. Also, 6 more launches of 60 sats needed for minor coverage, 12 for moderate.” The 60 satellites will join a couple of prototypes satellites called Tintin, which launched in 2018.
“This next batch of satellites will really be a demonstration set for us to see the deployment scheme and start putting our network together,” said SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, Gwynne Shotwell, on May 7 at the Satellite 2019 conference, reports spacenews.com. “We start launching satellites for actual service later this year.”
Why do we need Starlink?
There is a massive digital divide between the 7.5 billion humans on our planet. If you’re reading this in a city, it’s likely that you’ll baulk at the concept of having no internet access, but only around 45% of the world population has an internet connection and after a growth spurt, progress has slowed. Most of that network comes from land-based and undersea fiberoptic cables, but they don’t go everywhere. Don’t mistake Starlink, and similar plans from Amazon, OneWeb, LeoSat and Telesat, for some kind of altruism. There’s a scramble for Africa going on, though significant parts of Asia and the Middle East lack affordable internet access. For example, 98.2% of Icelanders accessed the internet in 2016, compared with only 1.2% of Eritreans, according to The Guardian. ’Space internet’ is a massive business opportunity for those capable of massive investment.
When will Starlink be finished?
At least a couple of years. According to Shotwell, there will be two more launches in 2019, possibly as many as six, though that depends on whether the initial 60 check-out. SpaceX needs about 800 up there to begin a spotty service, which it wants to happen by 2021, though the journey to having 12,000 up there could be a long one.
Is Starlink safe?
The trouble with ‘space internet’ constellations is that the number of satellites is so numerous. Starlink satellites are small, and most will burn-up on re-entry once they’re defunct, but those out at 1,200km won’t, and there’s no plan on how to de-orbit them.
SpaceX is one of the first-movers in a new space race that could see many thousands of small satellites put into orbit. Given the slowdown of the growth of the ground-based internet, it’s likely the only way the off-grid globe, and 50% of humans, are ever going to get online affordably. However, the cost of revolutionizing global telecommunications could be that the planet gets surrounded by awkward space debris.